The other day, I took a call at the multi-story bookstore where I work. The customer inquired whether we stocked The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. A quick check of our inventory revealed that we did.
“Oh yes,” I said. “We have three dozen copies.”
“Wonderful,” she said. “Would you please make sure you reserve a copy and have it waiting for me by the cash register?”
I wanted to mention that the simple request required me putting her on hold, walking to a different part of the store, retrieving it, returning to the phone and the computer, filling out then printing a document with phone number and name, leaving a line of waiting customers, go downstairs to the register area to file the book on a shelf, and finally return upstairs to help the customers who had actually made the effort to come to the store and needed some help. Had she simply arrived, taken the escalator to the upper floor, we could have handed her a copy of the book in less than fifteen seconds. I didn’t mention any of this, it would have made me a bad employee.
There is a point to telling this, beyond my growing disillusionment with retail in general. A fellow bookseller offered an opinion on the book in question. It wasn’t favorable; my curiosity peaked. I took another copy (of the remaining 35 on hand) to read during my break; it’s very short.
The Giving Tree is a celebrated children’s book that features a tree who loves, unconditionally, a boy who plays in and around her, eating her apples, and napping in her shade. It’s charming through the first few illustrated pages. At each stage of his life, the boy details what he really wants, and the tree always finds a way to help him. He takes her apples to sell for money, takes her branches to build a house for his family, cuts down her trunk to make a boat because he feels like sailing somewhere, leaving her just a stump in the ground. As an old man, he even uses that as a place to sit, once again, for his comfort.
It’s true the parable delivers a message of inexhaustible and unrequited love. The tragedy is that the boy never shows gratitude, he merely shows up when he wants something. The tree’s unwavering devotion is evident as she derives joy by giving without question or remorse, sacrificing herself (literally) for the boy’s needs.
The book left me feeling angry and unreceptive to the theme. There is so much evidence in the world that suggests just how many people are that boy. The tree stands in for the devoted parents of selfish children, the battered spouse in an abusive relationship, the businessperson who climbs the ladder taking more and more with little or no thought of who gave so he could have.
The story seems to suggest it’s all right to give and give to the point of self-destruction. However, it’s not okay, and for my money, the book is over-rated for what it lacks to teach. Had there been even the slightest guilt on the part of the boy at any stage in his life, some recognition for what the tree had done for him, I might have had less of an issue with the book.
It made me wonder if the woman who called for a copy and insisted on the reservation and special shelving would ever realize she behaved just like the boy in the story. It never occurred to her what someone else must do to cater to her needs, or that sometimes it’s nice to consider what it costs another person to do something for you. It might be a good suggestion to use the book, not to teach about love, but to demonstrate how not to behave if on the receiving end. I’m afraid the lesson will never register with those who need to comprehend it the most.