You know how sometimes you notice something and realize that the universe is sending you a message: "This is the future -- the world as you know is finished."?
That happened to me last Saturday on a visit to Manhattan. I was walking down Third Avenue on my way to the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory when I stopped in at an Anthropologie store on 71st Street. I went in because Anthropologie sells books as well as clothes, often on quirky subjects, and I wanted to see what they had.
In front of me was a round table piled with a pyramid of carefully stacked books but, on inspection, I realized they were not meant to be read. They had been sliced into the shape of letters of the alphabet. You could pick one up, read the titles on the spine and fan through the pages, but because huge gobbets had been cut out, it was impossible to make sense of the text. These books had been stripped of their original purpose -- to tell a story -- and turned into decorative objects with no meaning beyond a single letter of the alphabet.
Looking closer, I realized that all these "alphabet letters" were originally Reader's Digest condensed books, printed between 1950 and 1997, and bound attractively in fake leather and cloth, with four book titles on each spine. Clearly these were books that had not been sold and someone had the clever idea (and the right slicing machine) to carve them into capital letters. You would buy one of these books in the shape of your initial and set it on your desk or in your library to advertise your name and stroke your ego. They cost $20 each.
In 1983 my husband, Nicholas Gage, published the book Eleni, recounting the story of his mother's life and death in their mountaintop Greek village during the civil war, when the communist guerrillas occupied much of northern Greece. Nick's mother, Eleni Gatzoyiannis, was tortured and executed because she had engineered the escape of Nick and three of his four sisters after learning that the guerrillas were going to collect all the village children and send them to "re-education camps" behind the Iron Curtain.
Eleni was eventually published in 32 languages and made into a film. Excerpts and articles about the book appeared in The New York Times, and People. And it was published as a Reader's Digest condensed book.
Those were the days when magazines had fact checkers. In March of 1983, the Digest sent a young man to Worcester, Massachusetts, where Nick's family lived. After their nighttime escape on foot from their village, the children had been found in a refugee camp on the Ionian Sea and brought to live with their father, Christos Ngagoyeanes, a chef in various Worcester restaurants. Nine-year-old Nick had never known his father, who was prevented from visiting Greece after 1939 by the outbreak of war.
As Nick and his sisters gathered in the basement kitchen/living room of the third sister, Glykeria, the young man from Reader's Digest proceeded to read the condensation of the book to the assembled family, stopping to confirm every detail. The sisters wept and nodded. Their father Christos, 92, lay on a couch, and, in his mind, he relived the experiences of the war: "My sweet wife! Why they do that to her?"
With trepidation I approached the display of letter-books at Anthropologie and examined every one of them, fearing that one of the spines bore the title Eleni. But, to my relief, it wasn't among them.
God is an ironist, as Nick likes to say. From Anthropologie I walked to the Winter Antique Show at the Armory on Park and 67th, and one of the first booths I came to was devoted to selling the rarest and most expensive books on paper -- illuminated books from the Renaissance. You could admire opened books, protected in individual cases, which monks had devoted their entire lives to illustrating, embellishing the religious texts with gold leaf, jewels and exquisite art in the colors of stained glass.
These books were created to educate and inform the one percent of the population who were literate in medieval times -- and to share their religious stories with those who were not. They have been cherished and protected for centuries. It's a good thing no one cut out the text of these books to turn them into decorative objects that no longer have a story to tell.