They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.
I think the idea for this final column of 2006 occurred to me sometime last week at the bookstore, as I gift-wrapped yet another copy of the new CD by controversial singer/songwriter Yusuf Islam (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens). The ecumenical irony of this particular Christmas present was hard to ignore. Did it signify a coming together of disparate faiths and political ideologies in the true spirit of the season or was it simply consumer obliviousness? I'm still not sure, and I'm afraid to ask.
The search for the "true spirit" of the holiday season is not an easy task, and is perhaps made even more complicated because the reader in me tends to identify with the boy by the feeble fire, while the person whose livelihood depends upon selling books can't help feeling just a little sympathy for old Ebenezer counting out his coins.
As a longtime bookseller, I've grown accustomed to experiencing the holiday season as an ongoing drama of comparing daily sales figures to last year's numbers and obsessing over re-ordering strategies.
This is at once an exhilarating and intimidating time of the year. Some days "bah, humbug" doesn't seem like an overreaction to unpredictable weather, late deliveries or demanding customers. Wise and prescient ghosts of past, present and future seldom visit us with neat, plot twisting solutions to our multilayered dilemmas.
So how do we remember in such times that this mad world we've chosen to live and work in is still primarily about something as simple and complex as putting the right words together so that someone will read them?
When I was a kid, the words "true spirit of Christmas" were wrapped up beautifully in the stories I read and heard, stories from Dickens as well as the nuns at school. These tales reminded urchins like me that the holidays were about more than tinsel and toys, and I suspect I will always feel an emotional tug for young Scrooge reading by the feeble fire as well as Nativity scenes. I'm sure you have your own variations on that theme.
And if you are reading these words, chances are that you read as I read, to sift the world's cacophony into understandable (on good days, at least) measures.
We read to live. We read to find our way in the world. We read this time of year to encounter, if we can, the true spirit of the holiday season. That spirit is not always apparent, nor where you'd think it might be. For example, I found it this week while reading in unexpected places. Why these small gems brought the holiday spirit to me I'm not sure, but somehow reading them mattered:
I read about the Iraqi soccer team (a 20-man squad that includes Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds) winning a Silver Medal at the Asian games in Qatar last weekend.
I read that Beliefnet, a comprehensive Web site exploring a multitude of faiths, named the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., as its Most Inspiring Person of 2006.
I read this in Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal for Christmas day, 1839: "All life is a compromise. We are haunted by an ambition of a celestial greatness and baulked of it by all manner of paltry impediments."
I found some of the true spirit in this NASA photo of shuttle astronauts dangling precariously in the air high above the big blue marble, "haunted by an ambition of a celestial greatness."
My wish is that you find the true spirit this holiday season, too, wherever you happen to read it.
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
The capital letters and the exclamation point belong to that old rascal Mr. Dickens. Feel free to edit and paraphrase to suit your own needs and beliefs.
I wish you great reading in 2007