The Gift of a Book

When I was 20, my girlfriend’s brother bought me Bleak House for my birthday saying “I love buying books for people who will get pleasure from them.” I’ve flirted with Bleak House more times than I can remember but there is always some other book ready to steal my affections.

Bleak House at Broadstairs. The scene of many a childhood misadventure
Bleak House at Broadstairs. The scene of many a childhood misadventure

I’ve been through a substantial proportion of the Dickens canon in the last thirty years – and loved every one! – but, somehow, something about Bleak House keeps me from making that final commitment. But Colin! Believe me when I say that I am so grateful for your gift and your faith in me and, one day, I will prove myself worthy of your kindness.

I have been a committed reader since I first learned ITA and I formed the habit of keeping 5 or 6 books on the go soon after. I keep my active books in a pile by my nightstand, each waiting for the privilege of being the next to come to bed with me. I’ll sample a little of each until one seduces me, whispering I am the one, and commits me to reading on on on until the finish.

R. Dragon took me on flights of fantasy.

In the early days of my reading adventure, Green Smoke and The Little Wooden Horse and The Magic Faraway Tree were my night-time companions but, these days, Mr Bezos’s magical device sends me sample after sample to tease me and tempt me into making that brief, literary commitment. I do still have a few pre-electronic books on my nightstand, waiting for their turn to join me in bed and one of them is Bleak House, waiting longer than Pip waited for Estella – nearly 30 years now – for a turn under the covers.

On the RoadOther friends have had more luck giving me books. Matt currently holds the title Most likely to buy me a fantastic book, a title he first earned with On The Road, telling me “I hesitate to give you this, because you might just take off and leave me behind”. In the end, it was he that took off and I stayed put, probably to both our chagrin(s). Matt has since bought me several books out of the blue and every one was a winner. I have tried repaying his complement on more than one occasion, but I fully expect my attempts to settle the debt are still piled on his nightstand.

Another memorable book-shaped gift came from Colin’s (and therefore Fiona’s) brother-in-law Rod. I can’t tell you how many times I re-read Fungus the Bogeyman and I’d be more than a little ashamed to tell you how many times it made me cry.Fungus the Bogeyman

Perhaps the best ever surprise book came from an unusual source. When I was 15, my dad who, as far I know, never actually read a book, bought me Principles in Organic Chemistry, a second year (american) college textbook. I say my dad bought it for me, but what I almost certainly mean is that my stepmother bought it for me. Sue, if you are reading, I don’t know how you ever thought to buy me that book and I have been meaning to ask you since forever. That book was perfect for my fifteen-year-old self as, at the time, I loved chemistry and I read it over and over. I still remember all the methyl-, ethyl-, propyl- prefixes and the difference between an -ene and an -ane and how Americans had different names for everything (and still do!). I’ll forever be grateful. I wish I still possessed that book just as I wish I still possessed the Joy of Frogs (think: Joy of Sex but with frogs) that you bought me the year before.

Michael Freeman's 1000th book on photography.
Michael Freeman’s 1000th book on photography.

It’s a little bit sad that I have no one to buy books for these days. Mrs Clown reads occasionally, but not any book that I would ever think to buy for her. I have bought her many a book but our secret agreement is that I buy the book for her, read it myself and then tell her what’s in it. She particularly enjoyed me reading Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Mind.

My biggest little clown couldn’t get enough of books when he was an even littler clown but one too many deadly earnest Great American Novels For Children doused his passion for books in elementary school. I seem to recall that Little House on the Prairie provided the final bucket of water that killed the flame forever. The other little clown still enjoys reading in theory but, in practice, has too many electronic temptations to sit patiently with something so old-fashioned as a book and certainly wouldn’t let people from another generation recommend books for her.

It’s a great shame because I so desperately want them to love the books that I love. I am still able, across the vast generation gap that separates us, to choose a movie and force them to sit still (put that phone down!) through those crucial first 15 minutes until the plot grabs them and drives the electronic temptations from their minds but it’s a skill I have to use sparingly because, although my success rate is impressively high, I feel that a little of my influence drains away each time I use it.

Only for children who love dogs

One small clown still trusts me to recommend TV series for us to watch together despite the attempts at sabotage by the other two but my book-recommending mojo is, I fear, gone forever. I still have full confidence in my ability to choose a book for my little ones, but I have no confidence that they will actually open it and let the words cast their magic spell. One little clown, just last week, even made it all the way through one of my favourite books from my childhood but I have no evidence at all that the Call of the Wild was ever more than mere words on a page for her.

If I had a teenage daughter to recommend books for, I would certainly recommend that she read The Bell Jar. OK, maybe I’d wait until she was a little older so she could appreciate the wit and the delicious cynicism more completely, but I have no doubt that she would love it and that it would change the way she thinks about life. It’s always risky to recommend a book when you are only half way through but I am sufficiently moved by the first half that I wanted to put down my Kindle for long enough to write how much I’m enjoying it.

Sylvia Plath, for me, has always been a footnote in Ted Hughes’s biography. Mr Banks, my teacher for the last two years of primary school, was a Ted Hughes pusher and if we weren’t reading poems about attent, sleek thrushes on the lawn, we were making enormous collages about The Iron Man but I didn’t know anything about his wife, Sylvia Plath, except the thing with the oven. I understood that a certain kind of american feminist held Hughes responsible for her death but I never understood why they cared so much about her death in the first place. Now I do. She’s a brilliant writer.

I’m not much of a feminist myself – and I’m even less of one after the PyCon thing last week – but if I were a woman and a feminist, I think I’d want to be the kind who succeeds because she’s great at what she does, not because she’s a feminist and Plath was a great writer and she tells a story that I know well. I hear she’s pretty good at poetry too, and that’s where my reading adventure will take me next.

The Bell Jar

Published by

Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

10 thoughts on “The Gift of a Book”

  1. I think the Internet Killed the Book Star! I used to read a lot but just like the little clown, there’s too many temptations to sit and focus on a good book…shame really! I owe you for all the books you’ve read and summarised for me! Thank you…and maybe when we’re retired, I’ll let you recommend a book for me again! Not long now:)

  2. Despite the many calls on my time in this modern day – work, golf, gardening, knitting, wine, “Bejewelled” on my Kindle, TV, more wine – like my brother, I must always have a book on the go. Unlike him, I can only do one at once but, once commenced, must finish it(although I do confess to the very odd failure). I read a wide variety of books, some literary treasures, some trash (as long as it’s written in “proper English” with real sentences and proper punctuation. I’ve read many a Dickens and Hardy novel (although the title of Bleak House has perhaps put me off that one). I too loved Call of the Wild as a child and read it often. I loved the book my little brother bought me some years ago – Les Miserables – and its on my “must read again some time” pile. We studied Sylvia Platt on a number of occasions in long-ago English literature classes and I could once recite some of her poetry, although an ageing mind has put paid to that! I shall now accept the recommendation for The bell jar, and download it to my Kindle, a newish toy which I am coming to love, although as yet I do think I still prefer the real thing (which is definitely less dangerous in the bath). Dad definitely never read a book, unless from the top shelf, but Mum did, and still does, read a lot so perhaps we got the bug from her. She was also guilty of telling little sister who was perhaps about 6 at the time, that the cat in Bleak House, which we visited when in Broadstairs once, did, of course belong to Dickens!

  3. I’ve violated Bamber Gasgoine’s Law (I’ve started, so I’ll finish) a few times recently and ditched an awful book or two before the end. I’ve found two loopholes in the law though. One is that you are allowed to put a book aside as long as you promise to come back to it (see The Federalist Papers & Crime and Punishment & The Sound and the Fury & Paradise Lost). The other is provided by Mr Besoz’s Magical Device itself. You are allowed to send yourself a sample for free and read the first couple of chapters before agreeing to see it through to the finish.

    But Bamber had me finish a couple of truly horrible books recently, both of which were recommended by Everyone Important: The Great Gatsby was horrid. It was one of those books where, when I got to the end, I wondered whether everyone else in the world was conspiring together in some vast practical joke on me Let’s pretend it’s a Great And Important Book and see if we can trick Kevin into reading it. (see also Lolita). I even tried watching the movie in case I had missed some subtle point in the book but, nope. The movie was equally without merit. Anyway, well done everyone. I fell for your silly prank.

    The other book was The Road which I only kept reading to see if the second chapter (and the third and the fourth) would be as bad as the one before it. I already have No Country for Old Men on my Kindle but I am afraid to start it in case it’s horrible and Bamber makes me read it to the end.

    Don’t worry, Carol, your Kindle won’t electrocute you in the bath but the the bath might drown your Kindle. I’m glad I was able to successfully recommend at least one book in my life. Hmm… Now I think of it, I wonder if you had a hand in recommending that chemistry book. Did you?

    1. To my knowledge I had nothing to do with a chemistry book! I too fell for the great Gatsby trick – I saw the film in my teens but didn’t get the point so I read the book. Didn’t get that either. I saw the film again in my 40s but age made little difference. And now they have remade it.

      The bath is likely to drown the kindle – I tend to fall asleep there!

  4. When I was perhaps 12, my favorite relative (my great-aunt, my dad’s favorite relative too I believe) sent me “Little Women” for Christmas. Little women? Little WOMEN? A GIRL’S BOOK? What in hell was she thinking? (I was not a girly person. I was deeply disappointed. I had hoped she of all people might actually know who I was.)

    But I was a voracious reader, and one day there was nothing lying around to read so I picked up “Little Women.” My great-aunt deserved a shot, after all. It was about a girl who wasn’t girly and her three girlier but individual-human-being sisters and their mother surviving the years when their father was away in the war and they had essentially no money except for what mother brought home, which wasn’t much. (Father was a clergyman so even in the best of times there wasn’t much, but this was scraping the bottom of the barrel.)

    I loved it, and so did my much-girlier younger sister. It made me less judgmental in the classic “book by its cover” sort of way, too.

  5. You say that you’re not much of a feminist, but I am inclined to disagree. Feminism is the idea that women are people, no less than men. I haven’t seen you do or say anything that suggests you disagree with that idea. Just saying.

  6. But you’re not sure that fine idea is actually feminism, in spite of my sincere delivery? I’ll admit that my definition is simple and possibly simplistic.

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