Thursday, December 18, 2008

A New Hope

From the earliest moment I can remember, I have always been a huge Star Wars geek. I'm a white guy with glasses who was born in 1981, so this isn't exactly a revelation, especially at this point in our cultural history. Still, I feel I should preface this post with that statement, because it's going to be important later.

It's also no revelation that our business is in dire straits right now. Sales are down, layoffs are up, and I can't tell what's more disconcerting: the panic that set in when the first rounds of serious layoffs occurred about a month ago, or the relative complacency with which similar news is received today. What's our problem? Can we blame the economy, or the fact that people don't read as much anymore? The former shouldn't affect books as much as it might other businesses, and the latter was a problem before the recession. Are we instead, then, running out of good ideas? Responding to these questions (or ignoring them, depending on your point of view (and, as Obi-Wan tells us, "most of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view")), the book business has been pushing a "Give the Gift of Reading" campaign for a little while, arguing that books make the best holiday gifts. They're right, of course. Books are relatively inexpensive, appropriate for nearly anyone, and, most of all, they're thoughtful. Giving someone a book that you love is more than just giving them an object of a certain monetary value. At its heart, it's giving someone a piece of who we are. And it doesn't matter how old the book is - if the givee hasn't read it, it's going to be new to them. I'm sure there are people out there giving Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to someone this Christmas, as funny as that might sound to most of us who are reading this blog.

In this vein, my uncle and I decided to give a wonderful gift, a piece of who we are, to my little cousins, Ian and Mary, when I was visiting them last weekend. Ian is five and Mary is four, and we decided it was time that they saw A New Hope (the first film, Episode IV of Star Wars, for the uninitiated). We concluded they were both at a fine age for it, since I have distinct memories of being four years old and watching a videotape of the movie every day until it broke. Needless to say, they loved it. Ian was mesmerized by the Stormtroopers, and Mary tied a black towel around her neck for a cape and walked around the rest of the day making Darth Vader's breathing noises. But the most amazing moment, and one we didn't expect, happened right when the movie ended. Mary turned to us and said, with complete interest, and in complete earnest, "how did Luke's dad die?"

The fact that these are the most beautiful words a woman could ever utter to me aside, it came as a complete shock to us. It still feels amazing to write it: there is someone who doesn't know who Luke Skywalker's father is. As much as I knew all that stuff I wrote above, it had been a long time since the truth of it had been thrown into such sharp relief. We reminded Mary that Obi-Wan tells us Darth Vader killed him, which pacified her for the time being. But she knew something was up, and didn't know what it was. Regardless of the fact that it was revealed to the world a scant ten months and five days before I was born, I can't remember a time when I didn't know that (SPOILER ALERT) Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. It just is. And yet: there must have been a time when I didn't know. When that story, so well known to the world, was completely new to me. I know this because I saw it in Mary's eyes. And it wasn't just that bit of plot of which she was unaware, but also of the fact that Harrison Ford would be the only actor that would really have a career after these movies, or of the latter-day sins committed by George Lucas in the prequel trilogy, or of the fact that in the real version of these movies, Greedo actually doesn't shoot first. All of that stuff, inextricably linked to those movies for me and for most of the world, just fell away, and the movie was just a great bit of story all over again. Can you think of anything more beautiful than that? It almost makes me feel selfish - who was this gift really for?

So the questions remain: What's our problem? Are we running out of good ideas? As important as that question is, it might assuage our fears a bit to ignore it. We are still going to be mesmerized by a great story, and will look to share our favorites with the people we love, because the great ones will always be new to someone. From the business side, we'll certainly need to come up with some new ideas to deal with the realities of the present and the ones on the horizon. But we have a solid foundation, I think, and that's something we shouldn't forget. If my little cousins are any indication, there is an especially huge amount of potential energy out there to drive the business of children's books. I can only conclude that the force is with us.

Star Wars is not the kind of gift that you can give to too many people, and virtually no one over the age of ten. But there are a lot of great stories with moments like that which will be new to people for whom we're buying this year. And I'm going to keep an eye open for Mary's look in the eyes of the friends to whom I'm giving Jeff Smith's Bone and Graham Greene's The End Of the Affair this Christmas. It'll be my gift to myself. And it's one that I think we'll all be able to afford.


Unknown said...

As a 30-something who once hung from a clothesline, upside down, and pretended her hand had been cut off by Darth Vader, your post made me misty-eyed.

Here's to introducing a new generation to the original Stars Wars trilogy...and introducing them to the joys of imagination, creativity, and reading.

Susan Sandmore said...

A friend sent me this way after seeing your post. It's so true. I've been waiting to give my daughter Star Wars for a long time--waiting until she was ready. I was six when the first movie came out and wasn't allowed to go (though my older siblings went).

She knows pretty much nothing about the movies (this seems unbelievable, since my husband and I are huge fans). She knows enough to know that Darth Vader is "the bad guy." I blogged about her "meeting" him here:

I suppose now that she's eight, it's time! I wonder what she'll think? Good thing we have the original version on VHS and a VCR that still works!

Sarah Miller said...

This is a fairly inane response to a super post, but that's never stopped me before....

Every now and then, I'm struck by the realization that once upon a time, names like "Scrooge" and "Sherlock" were just NAMES, without any particular connotations about stinginess or intelligence. (When I was a kid, I actually thought "Sherlock" was another word for "detective".)

It really is amazing how deeply characters and stories can ingrain themselves into our collective consciousness.

Brenda Bowen said...

Sarah -- I share your feeling utterly. I just reread "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and was awed by the idea that it wasn't so long ago that those characters didn't exist. I feel the same about Peter Pan. And the revelation is, of course, that those iconic characters can only come out of their own time. They're archetypes, I know, but they take the place of any iteration of the same archetypes that preceded them.

There was no moment before Stevenson's that anyone could have created Jekyll and Hyde; no one but Dickens could have given Scrooge so much relevance; no time but 1977 when Star Wars could have emerged from technology and imagination. Every once in a while, there is something new under the sun.