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.
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.
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.
Other 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” but, in the end, it was he that took off and I stayed put. Matt has since bought me several books out of the blue and every one was a winner. I have tried repaying his compliment on more than one occasion, but I expect my attempts to settle the debt are still piled on his nightstand.
Another memorable book-shaped gift came from Colin’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.
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.
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 reading 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.
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 halfway 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, had 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.