The Velveteen Rabbit: Questionable Classic

As the mother of two girls, I treasure each and every chance to share books with them. But there is one book I will probably make them wait to read until they are much, much older: Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Became Real

I realize it is tantamount to children’s literature heresy in some circles, but I consider The Velveteen Rabbit one of the most deplorable works of fiction ever to come off the presses. I’ve hated it for as long as I can remember. The following excerpt is the portion that stands out most in my mind (and apparently in the minds of others – a brief search revealed that it is among the most popular readings at weddings):

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Here we have the Skin Horse – who has obviously been at the receiving end of a great deal of abuse at the hands of his young charge – providing sage advice to the Rabbit protaganist about becoming real – a painful process that requires being “loved” until you are used up and “shabby”. The Rabbit takes the Skin Horse’s advice to heart, and after his brief life as an abused and (later) discarded toy, he is transformed by the “nursery magic Fairy” into a real rabbit and allowed to live the remainder of his days in “Rabbit-land” (I kid you not, that’s what it’s called).

For some reason, this sadistic tale, which promotes martyrdom as the one true path to a higher plane of existence, is lauded as a classic and considered an indispensable tome to share with impressionable youngsters.

While I’m not one for unbridled egoism, the idea that you are not “real” until you have abandoned your identity and someone has loved you to pieces (literally, in the case of the Velveteen Rabbit), is just plain sick. Apparently, I am alone in feeling this way.

Margery Williams’ classic tale of a rabbit who allows himself to be worn to death in the name of “love” is rather reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s loathsome The Giving Tree, but far more reprehensible. You will recall that in Silverstein’s tale, a tree gives herself to a young boy until all that remains of her is a stump, which he then uses as a stool. If Silverstein’s story was truly about a tree, it wouldn’t be too dreadful (though mother nature certainly gets the short end of the stick!), but even a child can tell that the story is meant as some sort of allegory for self-sacrificing maternal love.

Oddly enough, Silverstein’s story has been at the receiving end of far more vitriol than William’s book. Roughly 1/5 of the Amazon reviews are in the one star range, and many readers highlight its disturbingly anti-feminist/abusive undertones. But even when viewed as allegory, Silverstein’s misogynist tale is still superior to The Velveteen Rabbit, because at least the intended audience (children) is meant to identify with the self-indulgent child, not the tree. Furthermore, most kids are, at the very least, surprised and annoyed by the boy’s selfishness.

In sharp contrast to the criticism launched at The Giving Tree, surprisingly few readers seem to find anything wrong with The Velveteen Rabbit. Yet, in The Velveteen Rabbit, the child-reader is drawn deep into the psyche of the rabbit, and manipulated into believing that maturity is about putting up with abuse at the hands of those you “love,” in the hopes that their abuse will somehow make you “real.” While the backlash against Silverstein’s book has been rather pronounced, William’s tale has enjoyed such consistent popularity that its disturbing message has even spawned a self-help book, entitled The Velveteen Principles (Limited Holiday Edition): A Guide to Becoming Real, Hidden Wisdom from a Children’s Classic. As with most self-help books, this work chooses to focus on becoming “real” as a process of authentication, in which one stops worrying about the superficial world and becoming more spiritually minded. Most adults seem to approach the book from a similar standpoint, preferring to gloss over or minimize the significance of the Rabbit sacrificing his life for a rather ungrateful and decidedly unworthy figure to whom he has attached his entire sense of self-worth (this is made all the worse by the fact that, as previously mentioned, the Rabbit has a very child-like perspective and is clearly meant to be a character that children will personally identify with).

Apparently generations of parents and caregivers have decided that it’s perfectly acceptable to celebrate the idea that love means having “most of your hair…loved off…your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” I can understand giving your life for someone you love, but it’s not a “sacrifice” that you make to some greedy bugger that makes your life miserable and then tosses you in a rubbish heap.

I realize that many of you will think I’m too sensitive about the book, but I think that’s the key problem: children take what they read very seriously! They read and re-read them dozens of times. The books we love as children significantly influence our worldview. I adore children’s literature, but this is one book I don’t plan on sharing with my kids until they’re old enough to apply some critical thinking skills to the subject.

Netflix for Books

I love reading, and I’m a huge consumer of print media - approximately 20 books a month, plus countless articles. I use the library out of necessity. It would cost me around $6,000 a year to buy all the books I read, so the library is my best choice for affordable access to the books I want to read. I love ebooks, which are slightly more affordable and can’t be easily digested by my two toddlers, but once again, I can’t really justify buying 20 or more ebooks a month (after all, how many books can my kids destroy per month?). But I do get tired of lugging all the books back and forth from the library and paying fines when I need to keep them a few extra days. Also, it’s difficult to tough it out for months on end waiting for new books that I am positively dying to read (my husband bought me the new Steve Jobs biography after he heard me mention I was looking at about six months on the waiting list).

All this has got me to thinking – why doesn’t a service like Netflix exist for readers? In my opinion, such a service would need to provide:

  • Simultaneous access to multiple titles (I’d go crazy if I wasn’t able to read at least three books at once – and I know I’m not alone in this)
  • Availability of pretty much any title I could find at my local library
  • Ability to read books on multiple platforms (tablet, smartphone, pc)
  • Affordable pricing (i.e., along the lines of Netflix)

This might sound like a tall order, but Netflix is able to provide these things for movie fans. I do realize that there are probably fewer readers out there demanding a service like this than there are movie and tv fans.

Amazon.com recently announced a service along the lines of a ”bonus feature” for Amazon Prime customers. It is pretty much useless, in my opinion. You have access to one book per month (one? Are you kidding me?), have a mere 5,000 titles to choose from, and can only read these books on your kindle. The only good news is that you don’t have to pay extra for this horrible service, which is lumped together with Amazon Prime at a cost of $79 USD per year.

Now, I’m sure that Amazon has been begging publishers to allow them to offer more titles, but I’m sure it’s difficult to get enough publishers on board. And as this article from Wired magazine notes, nobody really knows what a digital book is “worth” to the publishing industry, nor are they used to negotiating with anyone over the aftermarket for their titles.

Although it was comparatively easier for Netflix to discuss these issues

Now, I hate to say it, but I suspect one of the reasons that book publishers haven’t been as willing to acquiesce to the likes of Apple and Amazon is that they have felt less pressure from piracy. The music and film industries are truly suffering from the availability of free content on the web. In contrast, publishers earned 27.9 billion worldwide in 2010, and their revenue appears to be growing, not shrinking.

Adaptation to digital books has started off a bit slow, but it is growing. According to the New York Times (see link above), ebooks represented just 0.6 percent of the the market in 2008. Two years later, they had grown to 6.4 percent. Book publishers might not be feeling the pinch right now, but if this trend continues, they will not be able to ignore the pressure of  the web. I’ve never read a pirated ebook myself, but they do exist, and I’m sure that if they become readily available, they’ll be a much more evident threat to the publishing world.

Hopefully, publishers will not let it get to that point, and will come up with an affordable way for consumers to access books. I realize that not everyone reads as much as I do, but, as my husband pointed out when I discussed this issue with him, they might be willing to pay for a subscription to a book service simply because of the way it makes them feel.

This time of year, I’m always reminded of the job I took at the YMCA after high school. I was amazed that so many people would sign up for memberships in January. I worried that the facility would never hold them all! Not a concern, my boss informed me. Most of them will never show up after the second week of January. “But they’ll just cancel their memberships!” I protested. “No,” she replied. “Just having a membership makes them feel good, even if they never use the gym.”

I think an ebook membership would work much the same way. There are a lot of people out there who would feel great about having unlimited access to books, even if they never actually use the service! What do you think? Does the idea of an “ebook membership” appeal to you? Do you think it makes sense for publishers to offer this option through providers like Apple and Amazon?

William Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer on Display in Buffalo, NY

If you are in Buffalo, New York, this month, be sure to check out the Central Library at Lafayette Square, which will be presenting an exhibit of entitled “The Ideal Book–William Morris and the Kelmscott Press.” Included in the exhibit is an original copy of William Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer, along with books produced by the Roycroft Press.

My University library has a facsimile copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer, but I’ve never seen an original up close. The facsimile itself is nothing to sneeze at – it’s a gorgeous book. It never hurts to add it to your Christmas list, though $650 for the gorgeous Folio Society edition might be a bit steep (though it pales in comparison to the real deal – the genuine article recently sold in New York for $160,000 USD). There are some nice editions available on Amazon.com for considerably less, though. I got my sister this very pretty edition (which only includes the Canterbury Tales, but it’s a lovely hardbound edition) for under $20 a couple of years ago. I’m afraid I would dissolve into tears if my daughter tore up a folio edition, but at less than $20, this copy is probably just the ticket for a family with small children.

The Kelmscott Chaucer gives readers a sensual experience. I still remember the first time I picked it up and thought “this is what a book should be like.” Sir Edward Burne-Jones illustrations are stunning, and the borders have exquisite details that the eye can follow for hours. In general, I’m a bit of a minimalist when it comes to my books. I know that there have been many tomes written on decorating with books, etc., but I personally believe most books really aren’t that attractive. They take up too much space! As a result, I tend to either borrow from the library or read eBooks. There are not that many books I consider worth having physical copies of, but this is one of them. As Morris said, “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This is certainly an item that any fan of William Morris and Pre-Raphaelites would be thrilled to find under the tree.

For more information on the Kelmscott Chaucer, visit the Buffalo Library’s exhibition website. The Kelmscott Chaucer will be on display until January 30, 2011

Proust’s Madeleine

As a fan of fine literature and food, I was curious when I first ran across Edmund Levin’s article for Slate “The Way the Cookie Crumbles: How much did Proust know about Madeleines?” 

In Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator tastes some crumbs from the bottom of his teacup and experiences a flood of childhood memories: 
“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses.”

In his article, Levin argues that Proust pretty much made the whole thing up. A typical madeleine leaves no crumbs he argues, and worse yet, he claims that the crumbs have no taste. 

Like Proust’s child narrator, I’ve loved madeleines since I was a kid. When I was a young girl growing up in Olympia, my mom would take me to Batdorf and Bronson after ballet or violin and I’d always have one of their delicious madeleines (I think I tried the cookies with pretty much every beverage there – but tea was the best). My mom and I would chat about art, music and all manner of delightfully grown-up topics while taking in the aroma of roasting coffee beans and thumbing through independent newspapers. Those are fabulous memories. 


At least I thought they were! 


For a moment after reading Levin’s article, I questioned my childhood experiences. Were Proust and I both crazy? I knew I’d tasted those crumbs, but it had been a while. Surely this food writer must be right, and I wrong. There’s no way he would have made this up…right? 


To see if I could replicate some childhood memories and have a “Proust moment” of my own, I sat down with Julia Child’s recipe from The Way to Cook and the madeleine pan I received for Mother’s day. I figure that if anyone could settle this once and for all, it was Julia. 


Here’s Julia’s recipe (more or less). 


2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 c. sugar
1 c. flour + 1 T for preparing pans
5 oz. butter
pinch of salt
zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 t. vanilla


Now, while I fiddle with Julia’s ingredients a bit (she calls for “drops of lemon juice and vanilla” – whatever that means), I stick to her preparation guide fairly religiously: 

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Measure 1/4 c. eggs into bowl. Beat in sugar and flour. Blend and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Madelines 015

Meanwhile: 

  • Melt butter in saucepan. Bring to a boil and let brown slightly (it should be a lovely caramel colour). Place 1 1/2 T. in a bowl and set aside (very important!)
  • Stir the rest of the butter over ice until cool but still liquid
  • Blend the cooled butter with the reserved 1/4 c. of the eggs into the butter with the salt, lemon juice, rind and vanillaMadelines 019
  • Mix remaining butter (1T) with the 1T of flour you have reserved, and use the mixture to prepare the madeleine pans. 
  • Divide batter into 24 lumps of 1 T each (okay, so I don’t follow this part so religiously – measuring 1 T for each madeleine should do the trick)Madelines 010
  • Bake 13-15 minutes or until browned around the edges and a teensy bit on top!Madelines 005

I love this recipe. I put a fair bit of lemon juice in my madeleines. I like them that way – they smell positively divine when they come out of the oven! And Julia’s trick of mixing the melted butter with the flour and using the mix to prep the pans is pure genius – there’s never so much as a speck of batter left clinging to the pan. All you need to do afterwards is rinse the pans with warm water. Don’t use any detergent – it’s unnecessary, and can harm the seasoning of the pan. Also, don’t buy a nonstick madeleine pan! It’s a terrible waste – not only are most nonstick pans junk, but even the expensive ones won’t allow your madeleines to brown properly.


These delightful cookies are pure poetry, and will leave delightfully perfumed crumbs in the bottom of your teacup after dunking. Feel free to use your spoon to capture a few, a la Proust, when no-one’s looking!


Now to the controversy. Levin extrapolates several things about Proust’s madeleines from the text, all of which seem silly to me. Most importantly, he argues that Proust’s madeleine would have needed to be very dry, in order produce such a quantity of crumbs. Now, this is plain nonsense. Has this guy ever dunked a donut? 


I could go on… but for now, I think I’ll just enjoy my madeleines. 







Decorating and the Death of Ivan Ilych

While flipping through Pottery Barn Home the other day, I was suddenly reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It was one of those tales I read back in University that had a lasting impact on me for some reason, though perhaps not for the reasons my Professor might have hoped.
You may recall (spoiler alert!) that Ivan Ilyich dies while trying to install some new curtains in his home. You see, Ivan has a desirable, bourgeois home he has filled with the sort of objects that the upwardly mobile fantasize about. Ironically, Ivan is completely unaware that the design choices he thinks make his home unique actually render it quite common. Worse yet, these decorating decisions ultimately lead directly to his untimely death (weekend warriors: you have been warned!).
Now, when I read Ivan Ilyich back in University, it made the sort of impression on me that such stories generally have on the young (I saw Fight Club the same year and came to the same conclusion): middle-class tastes are bad, if not downright dangerous. Perhaps this is what Tolstoy was saying, perhaps not. At any rate, these days I’m a little more hesitant about passing out judgements. I said nasty things about Ikea for years after watching Fight Club; today I’m a big fan.  I might not be fully in love with Pottery Barn, but their styles are quite pleasant, and as long as your life doesn’t revolve around having the latest and greatest end tables, I don’t see how it’s harmful.
It could be that I’m a little older and wiser, or it could be that I’ve simply become a little more cynical. At any rate, these days, I can’t help but think that Mr. Ilyich could have died just as easily while protesting globalization, and it wouldn’t have necessarily made him a better person (thought it would have rendered him a more romantic character, to be sure).
My personal theory is that Tolstoy was tired of watching decorating shows on HGTV (or whatever the 19th century Russian equivalent) with his wife, and decided to exact his revenge by penning a scathing novella.
Now, back to Pottery Barn Home: it’s a beautiful book. Yes, the interiors are the sort of thing you see everywhere. They are ubiquitous, tasteful and relaxing. I was definitely inspired by the lovely photographs. As I sat picturing the changes I would like to make to my humble abode, I was reminded of our friend Ivan:
Looking at the yet unfinished drawing room he could see the fireplace, the screen, the what-not, the little chairs dotted here and there, the dishes and plates on the walls, and the bronzes, as they would be when everything was in place.–The Death of Ivan Ilyich
 We all have a little Ivan in us, don’t we?