Over the holidays I got to spend time with my three nieces who are in their late teens and early twenties. I was shocked to discover that they had not read The Velveteen Rabbit. I was going to blame this on my sister but then found out that she hadn’t read it either. This was alarming. The nieces still have the stuffed animals I gave them when they were young (one still sleeps with her bear), but they had not heard of the Velveteen Rabbit.
As I get older I worry about how people are going to get through life if they don’t know what they’re supposed to know.
A few days later I found a copy of the book in a small book store on the tip of Cape Cod where we had gone for New Year’s Eve so I bought it to send to them. The woman clerking at the store, who was about my age I guess, admitted that she only read it a few years ago and had to hide behind the counter so customers wouldn’t see her crying. I read it in college about forty years ago. I don’t remember if I cried or not. I tend to think I didn’t. But if I did cry, I think I must have kept it hidden like the bookstore woman. It wasn’t a time to cry. It was the late 60s and when we weren’t reading subversive literature, we were demanding that Angela Davis be freed. (I’ve decided never to ask my nieces if they know who Angela Davis is.) In those days we looked upon The Velveteen Rabbit as a subversive book, even possibly revolutionary. We kept pretty quiet about reading it and passing it on to other students. We only gave it to friends who could be trusted.
The story is about what it means to be REAL. In the academic world Philosophy professors have cornered the market on this issue. That’s one of the reasons we kept the book hidden under a stack of Kant or Wittengenstein or Plato. Fortunately it’s a slim volume, only 40 pages, so it doesn’t draw attention to itself. But from the cover you can clearly see that it’s a child’s book. Well, to be honest, it’s a nursery book. At least it takes place in a nursery. That’s why it’s so subversive to read it on a college campus. As the story says, “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.” Occasionally you’d find a Philosophy professor who was a Skin Horse, but they were few and far between.
The Velveteen Rabbit worries about whether he is real or not. He feels inferior. He thinks that most of the toys that are Really Real are new, modern, shiny, have wind-up handles and internal mainsprings that let them move around. The Velveteen Rabbit doesn’t even have hind legs, he’s more like a pin cushion as the story says. His best friend in the nursery is the Skin Horse, an old wise animal whose seams are coming apart, most of his tail is pulled off, and his coat is bald in patches. He’s the first to start educating the Velveteen Rabbit about what it means to be Real. (I’m capitalizing Real like it is in the book. This is to show that the story is about something important like Existence or Essences.) The Skin Horse tells the little stuffed rabbit that being Real is not about how you’re made, or what you look like, or whether you have something that buzzes inside of you, but what happens to you. And it takes a long time. And it can hurt. But when you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt. It doesn’t happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges.
So how does it begin? The Skin Horse explains. “When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real. . . 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.”
Well, this is just the rabbit’s first lesson in being Real. I won’t tell you how the rest of it goes because you probably remember it from when you read it. And if you haven’t read it yet, IT’S TIME. And I don’t want to spoil if for you. Let’s just say that by the end of this short story, the Velveteen Rabbit has become Real in many ways.
It’s odd that this little classic, originally written in 1922 by Margery Williams, should come back into my life at New Year’s. It is a time for resolutions, and I’ve noticed that people tend to make one of two kinds of resolutions. One is to become something you are not. The other is to become better at what you are. Both are about what’s real or, rather, how You are Real. And children, I guess, spend a lot of time wondering what’s real or if they are real. So do college students. So do many of us at the start of a new year.
So the New Year’s choice seems to be: try to become something you are not, or become better at what you Really are. It should be a no-brainer. But we need to be reminded every so often. Oscar Wilde said it best: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”