What Really Matters

NOTE: This post was originally written in March of 2012.

At this point most of us have seen numerous news reports about the tornadoes that devastated small towns in several states over the past week. A number of people were killed, and many families lost everything in a matter of moments.

It got me thinking about a recurring theme I have noticed in many books and films: characters realizing what they truly treasure in life. Why do we value the things we value? Certainly what we should value most of all is our lives, and I think this point has been suitably addressed through the recent interviews and commentary on this string of tragedies.

I am interested in what makes us value things. I remember seeing a movie recently in which the main character was asked what she would take with her if her house were on fire. I thought it was an interesting question, and it was fascinating to see how it played out as the film progressed.

For many the answer would be ‘valuables’, meaning jewelry, laptops – things it would be expensive to replace. For the more romantic among us, the items chosen would be mementos, some seemingly worthless, but that it would be impossible to replace.

I am most certainly in the latter camp, and what’s more, my career seems to be based on this very tendency — I preserve the ephemeral, nostalgic, and eternally charming objects of the literary world. This feeds into a larger context, which is the current debate over digital versus print media.

For the longest time I believed that my resistance to the trend of e-books and their ilk was due to my particular stubbornness. While that may yet prove true, I think that sense of value is a larger factor. Books, and of course many other objects that we generally view as the accumulated clutter of life, often hold value for me not because of the text they contain, but because they have been assimilated as part of my existence.

I remember reading The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin for the first time in tenth grade. I still have the copy I read, a rather unspectacular paperback volume published by Quality Paperback Book Club, which included this story and several others. I made these a topic of an English paper I was assigned, and because of this underlined the text extensively (horror of horrors!). I remember reading it again recently, and being struck by which passages I had singled out. Some seemed chosen for rather juvenile reasons (don’t we all sometimes feel a bit foolish at what we used to say and think?); others seemed incredibly astute (was I really open to that sort of insight at 16?).

What does the internet say this book is worth? Between $6 and $10. Probably closer to $6 in this condition. The Kindle edition is $7.99, the same price as a new paperback.

So why do I value my copy so much more highly? Were I to have a Kindle, why would my tendency be to save this worn paperback before grabbing the Kindle? Those who know how the Kindle works will respond: “Well, simple, you can just get a new Kindle and re-download all the books you’ve purchased. They keep records of that.” Sure, that’s great, very convenient, and much less tragic than if my personal library were to go up in flames.

But this is why I don’t value digital content at all. I don’t need to. Someone else is doing that for me so I don’t have to worry. Everything is replaceable at no cost to me. Here you go, sir, good as new. Can you imagine how you would treat your favorite books if that were the case? Or, for that matter, your car? Your house? Your family? Yourself?

The reason things are valuable to us is because they can be damaged or destroyed, lost, stolen, etc. The things we treasure are the things that can be taken away forever. Sure, we worry about losing those things, but isn’t worry just another word for love? Is that something we want to give up?

If the modern world’s solution to the anxiety of loss is for me to surround myself with things it is by definition impossible to value, I think I’ll take the road less traveled. And it will make all the difference.

Value

At the risk of waxing philosophical, I’ve decided to write about the concept of value. This is a subject I deal with daily at work as I assess how much store credit or cash to give customers for their used books, and as I price new inventory. It used to be that the word ‘value’ indicated the inherent worth of an item, or alluded to some benefit gained from having it, hence the term ‘valuable’. Most things can possess value — there are valuable pieces of information, valuable books, valuable friendships…

A problem I’ve been seeing lately, though, is that the word ‘value’ has become misused. Companies advertise ‘better value’, when really what they are pointing out is a reduction in price: direct mail coupons are termed the ‘ValPak’; bulk foods are marked Value Size.

Unfortunately, what people have taken away from this is that the way to get a better value is to try to get the same thing for less money.

In response to this, companies have changed their strategy. Rather than trying to have the best product, many simply try to have the cheapest. Consumers initially thought this was great — paying less money has to be better, right?

That was true initially, but it’s become a slippery slope. Now companies launching new products are looking at how to make them even cheaper than the last. And they’re doing that by subtracting value. Products don’t last as long (this is a strategy called ‘planned obsolescence‘). The ingredients they include aren’t as good. The problem is, we as consumers have not pushed back enough. Companies have lowered their standards of quality, and we have gone right along with them. They are looking for the quality floor (i.e. how low they can go), and we haven’t shown it to them yet.

At some point (and in some cases that point has already been reached), this is going to have a very real effect on our society. Cheaper isn’t always better. We all know this, deep down. We all realize that something is being sacrificed along the way. Whether it be the wages of those producing the goods, the health of those consuming them, the overall economic health of the world… skimping on quality is not sustainable. Neither is skimping on service. And yet these are things we continue to shoulder more and more in modern society.

Remember when milk used to be delivered to people’s doors? Remember when all gas stations were full service? I don’t. But it used to be the case. I’m 26. It hasn’t been that long, and we’ve gone from a society where companies bend over backwards with service incentives to win our business, to one where we save a few bucks here and there. So the question for all of us becomes… does this sound like value to you?

Today’s book:

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

The first volume in a favorite fantasy adventure series of mine, entitled A Song of Ice and Fire. This is an epic novel, grand in scope, original in content, rich with numerous interesting characters. And the interesting part about Martin’s approach — no one is safe. Gone are the days of traditional fantasy, where no matter the predicament the protagonist finds him/herself in, they are impervious to harm. Martin keeps you guessing with every page, which speaks to his talent, considering each book in this series is a hefty tome (500-700 pages).

Published in: on April 19, 2009 at 5:26 PM  Leave a Comment  
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