Friday, November 29, 2013

Value and the 'Firsts' of . . .

A copy of the first book to be printed in America, sold for $14.2 million on Tuesday.

It was printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Boston's Old South Church sold the Bay Psalm Book from its collection to cover the cost of building repairs and to fund its ministry.

Its value lies not in who its author was, or its content, but the fact that it was "the first" of something, and that it still exists.

Anybody remember the first mobile phone? 

Motorola was the first company to produce a handheld mobile phone, tested in 1973.  The prototype weighed 1.1 kg and measured 23 cm long, 13 cm deep and 4.45 cm wide, offering a  talk time of just 30 minutes and took 10 hours to re-charge.[1]  
How about an original Vought Berger Company wall phone from 1903-1906, complete with insides and original key, that may still work, for sale recently on EBay as "a museum piece"?  Only $1,200 as a Buy Now item.

Historical objects we preserve as valued mementos, or toss out or donate to Goodwill, depending.  Value assigned for being "the first" depends on the what.   Ever notice that firstborns are generally  more prolifically  photographed  during the first months than say, the fifth born?   It's not that non-firsts are any less  loved  but there's something about documenting that 'first' one, because you've never experienced this  before.  It's all new and unfamiliar and you're overattentive,  no burp or drool from this new little creature goes unnoticed; whereas with succeeding births, while you delight in all the same infant milestones reached, you don't feel the need to register Every, Single, Little. Thing. or  photograph every gesture, facial expression or outfit worn.  Eventually, quantity gets trumped by quality--you continue to highlight the special moments, and while the experiences differ raising each child, you know a bit more than when you did when the first one came.  (Mothers also tend to compare all subsequent pregnancies with the first.  It may get easier or be harder but you never forget what it was like the first time.
Just like . . .

you never forget your first love.  Your child's first word.  Your first car, your first job, your first poem, even if you now cringe in embarrassment at the latter.  So, 'firsts' are special. 

Books signed by the author are more valuable than unsigned ones.  Used anythings are usually less valuable than new anythings, unless it's an antique, original, or 'first of".

Been thinking about 'value' lately, vis-a-vis books as objects.  Some we tend to  keep, no matter what the age or condition, even though replacements are easy to find and their content now available digitally.   So it's not just the words, it's the type of container that houses them, and our relation to that type container, born of habit or preference, that determines its perceived value.  For many, a newer, more 'advanced', more accessible, more convenient something will always be 'better'.  A decades' old paperback with crumbling, yellowed pages and broken spine, with favorite passages highlighted in the gentlest of faint pencil markings,  coffee ring stain or turned-down page corners--well, yes you can replace the book with a crisp new copy, but you'll still consider that first copy the more 'valued' one.  No one, of course, will pay you anything like a million dollars for it, no matter what the contents--unless it happens to be the first ever of something.. Which it likely isn't.  But . . .

I find it interesting that the decision to sell that valuable first-book-ever-published-in-America was   ... the need for money.    A  church in my neighborhood here can no longer afford its heating bills and was forced to close down, ready to be scooped up by developers to tear down and replace it with new condos.  One could salvage a brick or hunk of stone or piece of wood as a memento but all its parishioners have left is a remembered experience of that particular building, and while they can read its history, or retain photos of it, for them it's just not the same.  The object they remember will soon no longer exist.

I've  kept an old rag doll my son played with as a child, heaven knows why.  His name was Bobo and he was a clown.  My son took him everywhere. Somewhere along the years we lost his clown costume; Bobo got tossed into the washing machine with something dark red and came out orange.  He once had a beautiful, full head of hair.  An arm has disappeared, chewed off by Harry the dog, perhaps.  The poor thing's literally in tatters now  And yet I can't bring myself to throw him out.
So he perches on the wall above a stack of books next to a piece of driftwood from Lake Champlain in Vermont.  Sea stones from a beach in Greece, lake driftwood, my child's first 'friend'--valued objects of no value to anyone but me.  None of them exactly 'firsts', but by museuming them in my book room, they've become singularly cherished archived 'things'.

As for that first poem, all I remember now is that it was an ode to a bicycle spoke, and that I'd probably die of embarrasment to read its words again.  So some firsts can be let go of, and probably also should.

Bobo the Hobo/Book Guy

He sold half his books
so he could pay the rent
then sold the other half
to heat his rooms
but unable to stand the emptiness
he bartered an old, too-large pair of slippers
for the well-loved book of poems he'd sold to a friend,
bought back  because
selling that one had been a
Big Mistake.

Fast forward thirty years, his house
houses two other houses
you're going to ask about that book now
aren't you?
Well . . .

A poem even worse than the Ode to a Bicycle Spoke, open ending into question marks, ha ha.    But it might make a good short story someday.  Things that mean something, and things that .... don't anymore.  Stay tuned, smiles Bobo from the wall.