A Story for October: Treat Yourself

October 2016

This short story by Alexander McCall Smith, first appeared in the Woman’s Weekly magazine.

This is a story of weakness, or rather, it’s a story of strength followed by weakness. Sometimes things work out the other way round: you start off weak and become strong because you realise how weak you’ve been …

It started in Canada. I was at the end of a book tour that had begun in the United States and was now ending in Toronto, one of my favourite North American cities. I like Toronto for its wide streets and its interesting downtown area, especially the area around the University of Toronto. I was giving a talk at the University and was staying in the University Club. I had been subjected to a gruelling tour—a city a day—for over two weeks and I was feeling de-mob happy. Now in a city where I had friends I was able to relax a bit before coming home.

For me, one of the best ways of relaxing is wandering into a bookshop and browsing. If the bookshop has a coffee bar, all the better. I can happily spend hour after hour there before making up my mind, buying a book, and going home. Toronto is a good place for bookshops of every description and happens to have my favourite second-hand bookshop in all the world. This place, within walking distance of the University, is on a street with a fair number of bohemian cafes – a good area to browse if one is in the mood to buy something but one is not quite sure what it is.

I went into the bookshop and spent several fulfilling hours looking at books on a wide range of subjects. I found myself in the language section and there, on a shelf directly in front of me, I saw it, Monastic Sign Languages, by Jean Umiker-Sebeok and Thomas A. Sebeok. I was struck by the title. Who would imagine that there would be a book devoted to such a thoroughly obscure subject? The answer, of course, is that there are books on every subject under the sun, including subjects that most of us have no idea even existed. I know of a book that is actually called – and I am not inventing this – A History of Anesthesia through Postage Stamps. That book found its audience, apparently – anaesthetists who were also interested in postage stamps.

I reached up and took Monastic Sign Languages off the shelf. It was fascinating: not only did it contain a number of essays on the history and philosophy of the sign languages used by monks, it also had a full illustrated section in which monks demonstrated Cistercian sign language. So the monastic sign for “egg” was shown by a picture of a monk holding out his left forefinger and then scratching the lower part of it with the tip of his right forefinger. Similarly, the sign for “machine” was revealed by a photograph of a monk twirling his thumbs round each other several times.

I thought: I have to have this book. I’m not sure exactly why I thought that, but I was struck by its glorious oddness. I just had to have it.

Then I looked at the price. It was one hundred and forty dollars. Now that is rather a lot of money to spend on a book that one does not need; it’s even a lot of money to spend on a book that one does need.

I agonised over the decision. My heart said Buy it! while my head said Don’t waste your money! The head won. With great regret I put the book back on the shelf and went off to another section of the store.

It was while I was flying back to Scotland that I began to regret my decision. Of course I should have bought it. Of course I should have followed my instinct to get something as wonderfully useless as that. Of course I would have got great pleasure from having such an eccentric possession. And now it was too late …

Or was it? The following year I found myself back in Toronto and again with a few spare hours to spend in that bookshop. But then the idea occurred: why not have a bit of fun? So I went up to the man at the desk, a scholarly-looking man, typical of the people one finds working in such bookshops.

“Do you by any chance happen to have a book on monastic sign languages?” I asked.

He put down the book he was reading and stared at me in disbelief. I saw his mind whirring. “Well now, since you ask, I believe we do!” he said. “Please follow me.”

We walked to the back of the shop, to the very shelf in front of which I had stood the previous year. “Here we are,” he said triumphantly.

I bought the book without demur and, after having done so I imagined the pleasure that the assistant would take in telling his colleagues about the transaction. “Would you believe it? Somebody came in and actually asked for a book on monastic sign languages …”

This story has a point, and it is this: never resist the temptation to buy something that you have fallen for. As long as the purchase will not actually ruin you, and as long as it seems special enough, take the plunge and buy it. Otherwise you will most certainly regret not following your heart and getting something that, although you may not need it, nonetheless means a lot to you. So don’t hesitate to buy that pair of shoes or that necklace or that book, or whatever. Buy it or forever regret the loss of the opportunity.

Is this good advice? I’m not sure. But I do not regret that book on monastic sign languages. I opened it again to write this article. I dusted it down and spent a few minutes immersed in it. I’m glad I bought it. Now, how do monks convey a feeling of being glad … I shall look it up.