An uncle recently showed me the first currency note from the first salary he earned over half a century ago. It is no longer legal tender, of course, but its value for my uncle is way beyond anything monetary. He will not give it away for money or love. My hope of being remembered in his will received a severe setback when I told him it was a silly thing to do. There is no great sanctity to the ‘first’ anything – for then we would have to save our first car, our first girlfriend, our first pair of glasses, our first set of false teeth....this is a first list, and already it seems endless.
Is it sentimental or merely mental to save such relics? Can you imagine the emotions now were I to look at the first tooth I ever lost in a fight with the neighbourhood bully? I would be tempted to drive to his house, take out my first gun and shoot him so he becomes a part of my collection – the first man I ever shot. These things grow on you. Soon it might be the first man I ever shot while wearing a pair of jeans, and so on. Collectors are strange people. So are people who keep a record of their ‘firsts’.
Collectors of books, for example (as distinct from mere readers of them). Those who collect first editions have always struck me as a particularly sad lot. A first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses might sell for ten times what my house is worth, or a first scribble by a two-month old Scott F Fitzgerald might fetch a king’s ransom in the open market. So what?
Sensible people buy books to read them, or because the colour scheme goes well with the carpet, or as weapons of ass destruction (to throw at family members who behave like asses), or for a whole lot of sensible reasons like these. But to buy a book merely because it might fetch a huge price half a century after you are dead and keep your grandchildren in cigars for the rest of their lives somehow doesn’t appeal to me.
But that is a specialised case of firstitis. The more general case is the one we are discussing here.
Maybe it is a question of temperament. You need to be of a particular bent of mind to save everything. My uncle probably got it from his father who saved a piece of the dessert from his first wedding (he couldn’t save the wedding, though). Parents tend to save recordings of their children’s first words, first nappies, first hair – but I think this is done to embarrass them later in life when they want to have a good laugh with their child’s first wife.
The first book I wrote is one million eighty one thousand and forty third ranked bestseller on amazon, which is pretty good when you consider the state of mind of the author of book number one million eighty one thousand and forty four on the list. Supposing that was the only book he wrote. Would he even mention it in polite company?
I do not have a copy of my first book; it is out of print, and half a century from now will probably be as rare and expensive as a first edition of an Ernest Hemingway novel. Or maybe not. Ernest did these things so much better, getting himself a Nobel Prize and then chasing wildlife in Africa. I have done neither, although I once scared a mouse in a hotel by screaming when it suddenly appeared under a table.
If someone were to offer me the first pen ever made or the first aircraft built or the first watch manufactured, I wouldn’t know what to do with the gift. If you introduced me to the first human being to walk upright after generations had been walking on all fours, I wouldn’t know how to react. I would have been happy to shake hands with the late Neil Armstrong, though. Wonder if he saved a bit of the moon rock he brought back to earth...
Never do anything for the first time, recommended the poet, and he had a point.
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