Discount Books

by Ed Harrell
Christianity Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 8, August 1988, p.32

During a recent meeting in El Cajon, California, Gary Knight told me that he had found a copy of my book on Oral Roberts in a major local bookstore. I don’t think that I am overly vain, but I can tell you that any author experiences a slight twinge of satisfaction upon seeing his book on the shelf at a store or in a library.

“It was on a discount table,” Gary continued, “and it was marked down to $10.50.” This is a book that started out selling for $29.95, so Gary tucked it away and headed for the counter.

I became increasingly ambivalent about Gary’s story. The turn of events hinted, at least, that my book was not wanted, that it wasn’t worth the price, that it somehow was a failure. On the other hand, I thought, there is a certain status in having written a book that is so widely known and circulated that it ends up in used book stores and on bargain counters. After all, I have seen Shakespeare in such places, though I don’t recall seeing Louis L’Amour there.

Unfortunately, the story went on.

When Gary reached the counter, the clerk rang up 50 cents. He pointed out that the book had a $10.50 sticker on it. She turned it over and showed him the other side. There it was — still stuck to the jacket when I autographed the book in the Knight home — a discount sticker pricing the book at 50 cents.

Now, that is ridiculous. I have struggled diligently to try to find some good construction to put on one’s book being priced at 50 cents. There is none. It is downright embarrassing.

What can we learn from this story? First, as Solomon said, “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

From my point of view, from the vantage of an author, there is here a valuable lesson about effort. I cannot tell you how much time and effort goes into writing a book that contains 500 pages of text and 100 pages of footnotes. I traveled thousands of miles, conducted scores of interviews, endured months entombed in archives searching records, and then spent week after week sitting before a typewriter composing and correcting the text.

What is all of that worth? 50 cents? I wouldn’t write you a postcard for 50 cents. If that’s all it’s worth, it’s vanity and vexation of spirit.

That, of course, is the point. All of our labors are ultimately pointless. Labor is a necessary part of life, and we should do our jobs as well as our talents allow. Historians tell stories about the past; good ones do their best to tell the truth. That, I think, is an honorable way to make a living. But that is all that it is.

The point of the book of Ecclesiastes is not so much that we should avoid excessive pride in our accomplishments, rather, it is that we should not define our lives by the things we have done and the things we have owned.

Christians lay up treasures in heaven, where our works will not end up on discount tables (Matthew 6:19–23). Our spiritual deeds, the cup of water given in the name of the Master, or the flimsy effort expended in writing these articles for Christianity Magazine, have a great and enduring value.

I expect that most of us have had experiences similar to my encounter with the discounted book. If an architect lives long enough, he will see his buildings razed; artists witness their paintings fade. It strikes me that housewives see their handiwork destroyed daily by the descent of the children and the devouring of the meals they carefully prepare.

Did you ever feel that your whole day’s labor wasn’t appreciated—that people valued it at no more than 50 cents? Don’t look to me for sympathy.

But if you did something for the Lord today, don’t worry about its value. There are no discounted works in heaven.

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