… for books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as the soul was whose progeny they are…
Milton’s Areopagitica (pp. 239-40 in the Oxford Major Works edition, if you’re like me and are reaching to find the context).
Sometimes you’re thinking a thought and the only one who’s said it properly is Milton. Well, quite often, really. The point here is that sometimes a book seems to have preferences. They really want to tell you something they care about. The author put the ingredients in a pot, and the ingredients bubble away, making a delicious stew, but I think even the author may be a little surprised by what, to mix metaphors, becomes the basso continuo, where a bit of ritornello crops up, and what becomes the glossy ornamentation dancing along in a series of trilling high notes. Maybe the author even thinks she’s writing a metaphor about cooking and stew but the words whisper, “Hey, author-person? We’re in music territory here– drop your wooden cooking spoon and take up your conductor’s baton!”
My point is that I sometimes wonder, when I think I’m reading a book about one thing, but it whispers to me that it’s about something else entirely, what the author thought the book was about. In this case, did Aliana Brodmann think she was writing a book about music when she wrote The Gift, illustrated by Anthony Carnabuci, or is that only what the book is telling me?
In an unusual move for me, I did some reading around online to see what others had to say about this book before choosing whether to add it to my music-themed series here or whether to write about it at Chanukkah, or just at any random time during the year. I read people who thought it was a great Chanukkah story, people who thought it was about the meaning of giving at any time of year. They’re all right, but my contrary side came to the foreground: books are not absolutely dead things, and I was sure that mine was telling me something else here, something about music, so I blithely ignored all of them and am doing what I want. So much for research, eh?
But let’s tell the story and see what you think: A young girl’s father gives her a five-mark piece for Hanukkah one year. She felt extraordinarily rich, and thought and thought about what she might buy. Then comes the theme and ritornello: she goes from store to store to see what she might buy. There are many beautiful things: fountain pens, perfumes, toys, hats, kittens– all come to life in Anthony Carnabuci’s glowing paintings. His skill is the lovely ornamentation on top; it’s particularly wonderful in the play of shadow and light. The folds of fabric, the shade behind a basket, the depth of kittens piled on top of each other in a basket, all of these come right out of the page.
But our nameless girl hesitates, again and again. She comes up to the same theme of loveliness, fun, temptation in infinite slight variations, and always walks away. Then she hears a new theme, and this theme is actual music, if you were starting to wonder when that was going to turn up:
I was thinking about names for the kittens when I heard a beautiful tune. It came from an accordion player who was sitting among a pile of blankets in front of the grocery market. […] I don’t know how long I stood in front of the musician, listening to his lovely music. [The town closes for the evening.] Only the musician’s tune continued soft and slow through the busy evening.
Our girl stands, listening to the music until you know what happens, of course: she quickly and quietly tosses the five-mark piece into his hat. But do you expect the next variation? He invites her for a music lesson, then and there. She sits with him and he teaches her to play. Together they play, on and on. People stop to listen and toss coins into his hat. And the girl wishes the evening could stretch on forever as she makes music.
So, yes, absolutely, this is a Chanukkah story: a story set at the right season of the year and, in its consideration of what “gift” seems to mean, and its underlying charitable message, it sort of fits the religious message: This is a season of gift-giving, and we should give unto others in need.
Only, and forgive me for being crass here, I don’t think that’s really what’s at stake in this story. She’s not being charitable– I mean, she is but she’s not. But she never says he’s a homeless man begging. She sees him as a musician and a teacher. He’s not a broken person in need and she’s not a prissy little thing giving him the wherewithal to live another day in some revolting Victorian Christmas story (sorry, some of those are awful). He has his hat out, and she, of all the people in the town, appreciates his music enough to listen and pay for it, if you’ll forgive me for being so ill-bred as to raise the subject of paying artists for their craft.
I think our girl read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. “This man,” she thought to herself, “is making music. I love music. His music is beautiful. It’s worth something. I’m going to give him what I can.” Is that charity? I suppose it is, but it’s also payment, and I think that’s great. It’s recognizing value. And he offered her a lesson, another gift. She accepted it. It’s the sharing of art, and how it evens out over time: she paid what she wanted freely, and he gives her something for it. Music goes back and forth and the notes of the accordion soar through the night, reaching a wider audience. It’s beautiful.
Perhaps you think I’m cheapening something by dragging in the economics. Maybe you’re wincing. I’m really sorry about that. (But then maybe read Amanda Palmer’s book, because I think I see her nodding vigorously.) Would it help if I also think that the book highlights the value of music? It says that music, even if it’s not something you can bring home in your pocket, isn’t something you can taste, isn’t something you can name and cuddle, has a true value and touches people. It reaches that town that night: people stop in the snow and listen, watch, and pay. Music matters, and that’s what the girl learns, and what she teaches her fellows.
That’s the gift she receives, and the gift she shares. And that’s what the book, woken up by the music, told me it cares about. Am I right? Am I wrong? I have no idea, but books are not absolutely dead things, so read it, and if it tells you something different, let me know.