July 16, 2021

We write things down to preserve them.  When we were children, we sat in the back seat looking out the window as scenes passed swiftly and perpetually past and behind us.  It is not until we are older that we realize that our lives are like that, not just the outer pageant that fades away and leaves not a wrack behind, but also the inward pulse of feeling, the memory that suddenly leaps like a fish above the waterline and is gone, the insight or intuition that streaks like a sudden meteor across the dark and is forgotten like last night’s dream.  It is perhaps the realization of transience that makes some people decide to become writers.  

But will the writing be preserved?  The great fire that destroyed the library at Alexandria in ancient times is remembered, ironically, because it is an image of the always possible loss of the memory preserved in books.  We are all grateful for the faithful monks who copied and preserved all those manuscripts through the Dark Ages.  We have exactly one copy of the manuscript of Beowulf, and it is slightly damaged by the fire that nearly destroyed it.  No one is exempt:  we have most of Shakespeare’s plays only because two friends of his went to the trouble after his death of compiling the First Folio to preserve them.

Nowadays we hear that digitalization will save the written word.  It will always be there on the cloud somewhere, whatever that means.  I take some comfort from this insurance policy, but part of me is skeptical.  How long before some group of nihilists figures out a way to bring down the Internet and everything on it?   How long before capitalism decides that certain things are not profitable to continue maintaining?  We have been promised digital immortality before.  When CDs began to replace vinyl in the 1980s, we were told that they were virtually indestructible.  Later, we were told that the expected life of CDs was 15-20 years.  What other false promises of digital invulnerability has capitalism found expedient?  

This sense of the fragility of the human record drives some of us to become collectors of books, music, and at least the reproductions of artwork.  We are hoarders, admittedly an eccentric lot, although some of us felt oddly vindicated during the pandemic when the contents of libraries suddenly became unavailable.  I sat here like Noah in our house packed absurdly full of books, videos, and CDs, knowing that I could weather the storm. 

But it is actually another kind of loss that I want to talk about other than annihilation. If it is buried in a library or on the Internet somewhere and no one reads it, that too is a way a book can be lost, even if it has a call number or digital address, even if it sits on a shelf somewhere.  Have you ever had the experience of finding that you are the first person to have checked a particular book out of a library since 1975?  It always makes me feel a bit wistful when that happens.  Sentimentalist that I no doubt am, I feel a bit sad for the author whose book has not been read in decades, at least not this copy.  Traditionally, library books that have lost their popularity are eventually put out to pasture, so to speak.  When I was young, I went to many a “library discard sale.”   I loved going, not only because of all the bargains I might find, but also because, in browsing box after box of books laid out on tables, and excavating in the overflow boxes under the tables, you could come across the most obscure and fascinating things. 

The same was true of the used bookstores, especially some of the more eccentric ones that seemed to have acquired their stock indiscriminately, much of it a long time ago, judging by the dust.  It is no wonder that fantasy has a small sub-genre of “weird old bookstore” stories, in which the protagonist finds, say, a book of ancient magic whose spells lead to adventure, or perhaps to horror.  I never, perhaps fortunately, found that book of spells.  The only spell I fell under was one of a slight melancholy, induced by looking at some volume, the smash hit of 1934, at least according to the dust jacket blurbs, now for all I knew reduced to the single copy I was holding.  Or the book that was never a hit at all, published obscurely, going out of print quickly, now residing in the ghost-realm of forgotten texts.   (There are also the poignant inscriptions by people now probably long dead: “To Marian, Merry Christmas, 1946,” but that is another story). 

But there is a wisdom deeper than the melancholy contemplation of transience, and I found it in a book my mother read to me as a child:  The Dinner That Was Always There, published in 1923 by Roy Judson Snell, author of dozens of children’s stories in the period from World War I to the end of World War II.  I have no idea where my mother found this book, which was in fact published a few years before she was born.   It is not a former library book:  there is no pocket glued to the inside back cover with a card stamped with due dates.   I have always remembered the dim outlines of the plot, about the quest of a young Eskimo boy (no one had heard of the name “Inuit” in 1923) to end the periodic threat of his people’s starvation by finding The Dinner That Was Always There—which throughout the text is The Dinner That Was Always Capitalized AND Italicized.

That title phrase has haunted me for at least sixty years, and yet, rereading the story, I realize that I didn’t really grasp the point of it when I was young.  But then, how many of the great children’s books only reveal their deeper meaning when we are older?  The Dinner That Was Always There is not a great children’s book, but Roy Judson Snell was trying to convey something to young readers that might become more meaningful as they aged.  The hero, Menadlook, goes out alone on the tundra and courageously and resourcefully endures trials and dangers.  Finally, a friendly stranger provides him with the means of achieving The Dinner That Was Always There—which paradoxically (this is the part I didn’t understand, and am still trying to understand) does not exist at the moment but has to be created, brought into being over time. 

The friendly stranger is a white man, and this part of the story will not sit well with contemporary readers who will rightly enough complain that the white author contrives that the Indigenous people have to be rescued by paternalistic white charity.  It is a valid criticism up to a point, but Snell had actually lived in Alaska, and the portrayal of the hero and his people is respectful, and so is their visual portrayal by artist Sarah K. Smith, which is not at all cartoonish and demeaning.  What the stranger provides, out of simple good will, is three things.  First, a way to tide the Eskimo people over:  he gives Menadlook the materials and technique of making bread as a stopgap against starvation in the near future.  Second, gives four reindeer.  But third, he gives the injunction not to kill the reindeer and eat them, but to breed them up into what eventually becomes a sizable herd.  That is The Dinner That Was Always There, and now always will be there, self-replenishing.  And the Indigenous people preserve their dignity by returning the loan with interest, giving back the stranger more than he originally gave, and he responds reciprocally by increasing their herd even more.   

The old wise man tells Menadlook at the outset: “First, you must remember that great things come to men little by little, little by little, and not all at once, as you have dreamed.”  Later, Menadlook’s people are still speculating about where The Dinner That Was Always There is to be found, and one of them suddenly realizes that it is here: “You see it had come to them so slowly, ‘little by little’…that they had not realized that at last they really had The Dinner That Was Always There.”  But why should it not be called The Dinner That Was Finally There?  In what sense was it always there?  On the same page, it says that if Menadlook had not had “faith in the reindeer,” preventing his people from slaughtering them as an immediate solution, they would never have had The Dinner That Was Always There.  I do not think the story is preaching religion, however covertly (and neither am I), and yet I am reminded of Jesus’ reply in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas when someone badgers him about the coming of the Kingdom: “The Kingdom is spread upon the earth, and people do not know it.”  Out of the mouths of children and heretics.  Not all faith comes with the stamp of institutional approval, but faith as a commitment to something that might be brought to realization by that commitment is faith all the same. 

Part 3 of my book The Productions of Time is about how the human race, although it came into being like the rest of nature through the blind genetic accidents of natural selection, evolves culturally through time by building up a body of vision of which every creative act is a part. All of the books in all of the libraries, including the forgotten ones—they are a dinner that is always there. Spending all my life as a habitual reader and a teacher, I am acutely aware at times of how much of the contents of libraries and archives is neglected and untouched. Yes, some of it is what we are perhaps too quick to call “trash,” and a good deal of it is corrupted by human neurosis and obsession. But there is also so much that deserves more respect and attention than we give it. A forgotten children’s book may hint at something profound about how every human act informed by a vision of something better, or at least meaningful, changes the world “little by little.” It is that kind of faith (not necessarily religious in any supernatural sense) that inspires writers to labor in complete obscurity, with no assurance that anyone will ever read them, and that inspires those of us for whom reading is a vocation to pay attention, and deep enough attention, to as many texts as possible in our limited time. Neither writers nor readers know for certain what may come of all this. But on the eve of the centenary of The Dinner That Was Always There, perhaps in my second childhood I am on the verge of finally understanding it, and, by doing so, pass on its vision to others.