Perhaps it was being in Portland, not thinking of work or inhaling coffee for the first time in months, the smell of Powell’s, the warm rain or some other mystic combination of good vibes, but I was primed to devour a good book and Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog fit the bill. I don’t remember the last time I finished  something and immediately turned back to the first page to start reading it again, but with this one I did and am still rereading favorite passages on a daily basis.

So, basic introduction: Europa Editions is a New York publisher specializing in international literature of high caliber. They’re using the best translators in the business, and the attention to syntax and simple elegance is evident. Muriel Barbery is a French philosophy teacher;  Hedgehog is her second book  and it’s been a best seller in France since it was first published in 2006.

The book is almost a dialogue between two residents of a Paris apartment building: Renee, the fifty-four-year-old concierge and Paloma, a twelve-year-old who lives on the fifth floor. Renee is a self-educated, fiercely intelligent woman who lives for art, film, books, and culture while maintaining the facade of a slovenly, uneducated drudge. Paloma is frighteningly self-aware and intelligent. After careful examination she has decided that life is not worth living so she will commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday; until then she will record profound thoughts and observations about the world. I immediately loved the short, essay-ish chapters of beautiful writing in which these two ruminate on characters in the apartment building and high and low art in the world beyond.

There are a few moments that make this such an achingly beautiful book to me. The first: tea. What is it but the universal cup? Renee points out that it is drunk all over the world by every class of people.  When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things…the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony. Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then, let us drink a cup of tea.

From a professional standpoint I naturally think there is a distinct difference between plopping a teabag in a mug of microwaved water and choking down the resulting swill, and examining loose leaves as the water heats, noticing subtleties of color and uniformity in size, inhaling the scent of the leaves after they infuse, and pausing as the liquor washes over the palate. Appreciate the many stages of tea, allow flavors to spark sensory memories. To use these moments for noticing greatness in small things is, as Renee says, time sublimed.

Next glorious moment: both Renee and Paloma are revealed to be sticklers for correct comma usage. That’s right, whole chapters are devoted to my favorite punctuation mark! Yes, language changes, evolves, shifts. We no longer diagram sentences in schools, the language of media and advertising is geared toward the lowest common denominator in bite-sized chunks of text that are easily digestible. Where is the place, then, of the comma? Grammar is an end in itself and not simply a means: it provides access to the structure and beauty of language…when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language.

We learn the rules, we “swear total allegiance” to grammar. Why? To become aware of the skill involved in choosing the best words in the right order with the proper markings to convey a pause, an emphasis, a rhythm. For me there is also some hopelessness in knowing that that sentence has already been written, here, on this page, and I will never, can never, write it or anything nearly so perfect. Yet to marvel at that skill, is to notice, again, greatness in small things.

There is so much more here, so many more interesting and detailed thoughts on art and music and film. There is Paloma learning to see beauty, there is Renee learning to soften her hedgehog quills, there are funny bits and one-liners and even a reference to my favorite detective, Harry Bosch. There is delight and there is heartbreak, and to me, experiencing my own bouts of delight and heartbreak on a daily basis at the moment, there is the reminder to embrace the simple, the beautiful, the elegant. To take the time for a cup of tea. It is not about the job, the salary, the other trappings, but the ability to see the color of camellias on moss or the breathlessness I get when I read a beautiful string of words. It is about finding the odd moments of beauty in this world so that, as Coach Eric Taylor would say: gentlemen, my heart is full.

Live, or die: mere consequences of what you have built. What matters is building well…what matters is what you are doing when you die…I want to be building.