Giving Thanks: One Reader Is A Miracle

All the talk about slow food and  slow blogging reminds me of this story from the Left Bank. I published it first in September 2007, near the beginning of this blog. It remains one of the most satisfying pieces of new writing that I’ve done here. I was sad the day it dropped off the bottom of the home page, which held 20 posts then. Maybe no one would ever find or read the story again. So I re-posted it that Thanksgiving, and now I claim it as a family tradition. On this day meant to give thanks it gives me pleasure to read and publish it again to affirm how I am blessed that Ms. Modigliani is my first reader.

The title here comes from Walter Lowenfels, the poet and labor organizer whom Henry Miller immortalized as Jabberwhorl Cronstadt in Black Spring. “One reader is a miracle,” Walter said. “Two readers are a movement.”

[Photo by Ms. Modigliani]

I remember the book I held in my hands that day. I remember the feel of its time-warped, water-stained pages. I remember its murky, moldy river smell, call it the book’s bouquet, suggesting years of storage on the banks of the Seine. Had I bought it then, I could feel and smell it now and know it from a thousand other books in my studio. Its touch and bouquet would transport me into the midst of its terroir, several blocks of the Latin Quarter only a stone’s throw from the river, where it was printed and published, sold and re-sold, read and debated, discarded and read again in other hands — for three centuries. Like the fish that got away, it looms ever larger and more mysterious just below the surface of my memory.

It was a 1745 edition of Voltaire. The price was 45 euros. I had as much cash in my pocket, but that seemed exorbitant for a book slowly composting like leaf-mold. Voltaire never meant that much to me. I was hoping to stumble upon an affordable antiquarian volume of Rabelais. Still, 1745 was 1745, and I liked the smell of leaf-mold…

“You don’t need to buy books,” Ms. Modigliani said after snapping the photo. “You don’t need to read them. Just touching books is what you really want.”

She was right. Until then, she’d always been a little dubious about my passion for collecting books. Charitably, she overlooked the impracticality, the apparent futility of a blind man acquiring (and housing) countless printed volumes he could never read. Patiently and generously, she read to me more than a few obscure books over the years. As we made our way through the bookstalls along the Seine, she gamely surveyed the titles for me, translating snippets of this text or that. She almost succumbed to the passion herself as she haggled with bouquinistes on my behalf. Nonetheless, she couldn’t ignore the incongruity that I might pay more for a musty old book than she would spend for chic new shoes. It seemed, well, profligate.

So it was a moment of deep insight and acceptance when Ms. Modigliani said, “Just touching books is what you really want.” I felt understood then, and loved. How could buying any mere physical object compare with that?

I didn’t buy the book. We walked down Quai des Grands-Augustins to the Institut de France, then turned left onto Rue de Seine. There was Voltaire! Chancing upon his statue unexpectedly must have been an omen. I took a picture as if to prove to myself that I truly was a free agent in this situation. Then I heard a cold marble voice mocking me. Maybe it was an oracle from the terroir. “You should have bought the book.”

[Photo by a blind flaneur]

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9 Responses to Giving Thanks: One Reader Is A Miracle

  1. Pingback: a blind flaneur

  2. ms modigliani says:

    Ms Modigliani will alway be thrilled to be your “first reader” even if she sometimes misses things that she shouldn’t. I give thanks for the 10 years we have been together and look forward to more decades of reading and finding solace together.

  3. Mark Willis says:

    Thanks, Ms. M. You might be interested in this radio piece about reading paper books vs. reading online:

  4. ms modigliani says:

    The big question for a writer interested in the miracle of more than one reader seems to be how to get noticed by Oprah. Apparently, book sales go down when Oprah goes on holiday.

  5. Mark Willis says:

    Trying to get noticed by Operah is a long-shot akin to getting hit by an asteroid. I like the idea of trusting the long tail and giving it away on a Ritz cracker.

  6. alex says:

    yes, I remember reading this as one of the first pieces I found on your blog.

  7. Mark Willis says:

    Thank you, Alex. What a blessing to have a reader who would read it twice!

  8. Sara H says:

    This is WONDERFUL! I’m so happy to have found your blog and to be part of your “movement.” I walked that part of Paris myself last year but resisted temptation at the bouquinistes, since I already have far too many old books. I do want a Kindle, but only for traveling - the feel and the smell of a book is a precious thing. Happy Thanksgiving to you and Ms. M! May there be many more…
    And by the way, it will be lovely when Oprah retires…

  9. JoAnn says:

    My dear blind flaneur,
    On this 2009 Thanksgiving, I am preparing to leave Canada and come to you to celebrate the holiday and sample your specialities: dindon marinated in a brine of apple cider accompanied by red beans and rice. Even after 12 years, the joy of being together has not diminished.

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