The Gift Book
By Marvin Payne
The cabin I live in was built to be a gift shop. The lady who lived in the century-old home whose lot now nearly surrounds us (we’re on a corner), had a bug for knick-knacks and crafts, so she built a cabin out front and it was “Elzera’s Gifts.” I remember bringing my little boys here, not long after coming to town thirty-one years ago, to buy knicks and knacks for gifts at Christmas time.
The store, after just a few years, went belly-up, probably because it tried to be too many things to too many people. I mean, you have your “knick” people, and then you have your “knack” people, and Elzera was, unfortunately, a compound of both, with sad results – sort of like Martha Stewart was a compound of your “organize your doodads” people and your “organize your investments” people. If either lady had had the discipline to make the hard choices and focus on her core competency, much heartbreak would have been averted.
But also my opportunity to live here would have been averted, so never mind – their loss is my gain. So I moved into this cabin, removed the parking lot in front and laid sod (moved the parking lot to the side and laid sod over it, too, which is confusing the toes of my cherry trees that have since been planted on the resultant hill).
My life, then, is daily touched with a certain vibe of “gifts.” In this season of giving, it is of gifts that I wish to write.
I want to breathe new life into a dying Mormon tradition. When I was a kid, books by Mormons about Mormon things were not meant to be read. They were meant to be given. As gifts, they were the perfect choice. They betokened the righteousness of the giver, positively hemorrhaging good intent, and they assumed the righteousness of the receiver, gracing said receiver’s bookshelves and postum-tables with palpable evidence of activity in the Church. Remaining unopened and pristine, they had also the advantage of being recyclable. Many people don’t know that it was Deseret Book who brought to American publishing the phenomenon of the multiple flyleaf, allowing for pages of loving inscriptions to be razored out and new ones written in for subsequent receivers.
(There was, of course, the downside risk of inadvertently wrapping up a book and giving it back to the person who gave it to you, not to mention the risk of multiple givings of the same book to the same person. It’s sobering to an eleven-year old ((well, like my son Sam, for example)) to be given at the extended family Christmas party, where givers and receivers are paired a year in advance by “drawing names,” the book Stories of Faith for the LDS Boy ((sobering enough in itself)), and then, by the “luck of the draw,” as it were, to be given on the following Christmas, by the same relative, Stories of Faith for the LDS Boy.
((I shouldn’t forget, though, that at a similar age at the same annual party I was given a yellow hardcover volume containing both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which gift so appalled me that I nearly didn’t take it home. But then it got dug out when I was a decade older and for the last thirty years that book has never been beyond arm’s-reach from my bedside, to be read as though the reading of Mark Twain were going out of style. As it were. (((I remember one night in the mid-seventies when Guy Randle and I were rambling across the country playing concerts for LDS Institutes and we drove out of our way to spend an afternoon and night in Nauvoo. The missionaries there sent us to some folks who’d bought the old house on Willard Richards’ property and rented out rooms for the night ((((there were no other places to sleep in Nauvoo in those days, unless you lived there)))), and there was a copy of Twain’s Diary of Adam and Eve in the room. We read that aloud as Twain’s Mississippi rolled by outside and it was really cool.))) But then, Mark Twain was, of course, quite decidedly, not a Mormon author, even when writing on a scriptural subject. So it was, even back then in the “gift book” days, permitted to read him.)) )
Now everything is different. People actually read the books! Repeatedly. They buy them not as gifts, but for themselves – and they hoard them. They listen to them on CD, MP3, Nano. They jeopardize their empires of NBA franchises and car dealerships by underwriting major motion picture adaptations of them. They are different books, of course, but still Mormon books.
What’s the deal? What wrought this mighty change? It might be because in former days Mark E. Petersen never introduced Osama Bin Laden into any of his plots, but just relied on the tiresome and threadbare actual Adversary as his usual antagonist. Not even a shadow of CIA or Mafia darkened the door of A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. Nor were there verifiable instances of “he brushed her hair with his lips” or “his kiss deepened” in the theological ruminations of Alvin R. Dyer. Bruce R. McConkie was never described as “mysterious, full-lipped, with muscles moving beneath his shirt as he worked the field.” At least not in the books.
And none of them were ever written by somebody who also writes for Marvel Comics! How can anyone not read them?
Nevertheless and notwithstanding (mentionless be regardless and contrariwise), I want to revive the tradition of “Mormon Books as Gifts.” I want to return to the days of books as wrapped recyclable decorations. This passion is purpose-driven. The purpose is, how else can I get a publisher to take seriously my magnum opus, “Backstage Graffiti, the Epic Book”? (Actually, I should title it THE FIRST FIFTY-NINE COLUMNS, in a font that might be called “Monumental Stone Receding Into Ominous Sky Bold,” followed by THE SECOND FIFTY-NINE COLUMNS, through the third, fourth, and fifth, culminating in THE MILLENNIAL FIFTY-NINE COLUMNS.)
You see, the problems are simply these:
1. As it stands, Backstage Graffiti has no social value. I don’t mean by that that it’s not valuable to “society” (heaven forbid!), but that it has no value as an implement of “sociality.” People don’t pop corn and warm cider and gather in front of the computer monitor for an evening of Backstage Graffiti. It’s all pretty much just between you and me. And, however much we might revel in one another’s company, you and me is a limited social circle. If I could somehow create a “gift,” then I could just lie back and watch all these marvelous social synapses develop among lots of people, which brings me to
2. As it stands, I’m totally downloadable. It doesn’t compel the imagination or move the tender heart to discover their pixels organized into, “On this special Christmas, I want you to have this wonderful, um, link (it’s the part in blue). Love, Aunt Vickie.” Pretty chintzy gift, even if it’s a link to the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And no email will ever have the same effect as a heavy red textured flyleaf on which is written in fountain pen the heartfelt sentiment, “On this special Christmas, I want you to have this wonderful volume of wisdom that you can use throughout your life, like last year when I gave you ‘Gospel Weight Loss.’ Love, Aunt Vickie.”
In the teeth of this dilemma, I can only exhort: Stop reading. Start giving again.
But it doesn’t have to be “cold turkey.” You can gradually wean yourself of all this literacy. There’s actually no hurry, because my printer is broken and so desktop publishing is, for the moment, out of reach. It won’t print black, which is the color of the words in most books. I called the printer company global headquarters in Sri Lanka, who forwarded me to their customer support division in a village in Papua-New Guinea, and they told me where I could go in American Fork to find a factory-qualified repair person. I wrote down the phone number and address and then they said, “Of course, it will cost as much to fix it as if you bought a new printer.”
“Really? Wow. Well, how much is a new printer?”
“Actually, we don’t make your C84 anymore. It’s been superseded by the virtually identical except for trifling cosmetics C86.”
“Uh, oh. How much are they?”
“Woh, that’s cheap!”
“Thank you. Not in Papua-New Guinea.”
“Oh, sorry. Um, how much does a helping of ink cost?”
“Boy, good thing I just loaded up on ink yesterday. Of course the C86 takes the same kind of ink as my virtually identical except for trifling cosmetics C84, right?”
So I’m using up my sixty-five-dollar’s worth of ink before I buy my seventy-nine-dollars’ worth of new printer, creating serious letters to the IRS in pale lavender, printing family photographs with yellow shadows, and wishing fervently that I could help you with your Christmas list.
I could of course send you, for a moderate fee, a bound sheaf of blank paper preceded by multiple flyleaves. That’s as far as they’ll read, anyway.
End of column proper, beginning of bonus feature:
And now, because the giving of the same gifts repeatedly to the same recipients runs in my family, and because, against the poignant hopes and/or smug expectations of all Meridian Columnists, nobody ever actually darkens the virtual door of our online “Archives,” I will offer you the following encore gift from a year ago, on account of silver and gold have I none. It’s not exactly a gift book, but may become one. A short one. Or a long Christmas card.
AN IDEA FOR A STORY
(Christmas Eve, 2004, between 6:20 and 7:00 PM – What if Joseph and Mary weren’t the only ones in Bethlehem that night who got there after the “no vacancy” signs went up?)
A little boy, Joshua, travels with his grandmother the long road from Jericho to the tiny town where her ancestors were born. They’d rather not have made this journey, but a mysterious emperor in some fabled city impossibly distant has commanded them to gather, because he wants to count them and tax them – and since his imperial armies run the country now, they have obeyed.
The journey has been long and boring. They’ve even been denied the excitement of avoiding robbers, or even the excitement of some interesting weather. The robbers aren’t waylaying lonely travelers, because the whole country is on the move and there aren’t any lonely travelers. And it’s mid-spring and boringly mild.
They arrive after dark in the tiny town, now bursting at the seams with the remote relations of the few folks who still live there. And there is, as ought to have been expected, no room at the inn. The innkeeper, however, has cleaned his large stables, hung blankets between its various stalls and lofts and recesses, letting the animals wander in the mild night, so there are makeshift rooms to rent to weary travelers.
As Joshua lies down next to his grandmother on some straw they’ve spread out evenly on the rutted dirt floor, he hears a young couple quarreling in the loft overhead. Off in the other end of the stable somewhere a toddler whines, and against the boards separating Joshua from the next stall an old man is muttering in his sleep. Still, the boy is so tired that he only narrowly hears the new urgent whispering as another young family has just arrived. The husband is sweeping straw together into a pile. He eases his wife stiffly down against it. She hurts. Something is wrong. Joshua is tired.
Among the few cows shifting and clumping outside in the starlight, just one, from her incessant moaning, seems offended at having to have surrendered her home to a dirty-faced runt of another species.
The dirty-faced runt finally descends into sleep through the unrelenting din.
Some hours later he awakens with a start. Is it the silence that has surprised him into wakefulness? But it’s not entirely silent. Is it the strange light? Joshua leans up on an elbow and peers between the boards, over the wheezing form of his slumbering old neighbor. Just beyond lies a young woman, a girl really, her hair hanging damp and her face pale – but oh, so lovely as she gazes on a gurgling infant, minutes old. Her husband is farther off, kicking straw out into the night and gathering more from a manger.
Joshua drifts again into sleep, imagining the most amazing music on the wind.
Merry Christmas from my cabin to yours.