Provocation & Privacy: The Case for Books as Gifts

I have always given books as gifts to friends of mine who devour literature in the same way that I do.  But it was not until genuine adulthood that I realized how special the act of giving a book is – how it functions in ways and situations that other gifts fall short on. And how important the books I’ve received in my life have become to me.

From Jack, With Love

In college, I spent three years with an abusive man. He was a literature student, like myself, and we combined book collections. When I left him, it was not a breakup – it was an exodus. After a particularly ugly incident, I fled with only my purse and the things I could carry in my hands – everything else, including my painstaking collected books with inscriptions and notes in the margin, stayed behind. Not only did I leave the boy and the apartment; I left the state and region of the country.

It wasn’t until after we were engaged that I told now-husband, Jack, what had happened to my book collection. Jack had boxes and boxes of well worn, beloved books. Philosophy texts, fiction, literature in French and Russian, comic books and graphic novels – he loved books as much as I did, and he understood what the loss of my entire collection, margin notes and all, meant to me.

So he began the tradition of giving me books as gifts. Not just for holidays and special occasions (since the first wedding anniversary is paper, Jack bought me a complete collection of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, all seven of which I’d lost, and hid them in various places around the house), but also when he knew I’d have a particularly gruesome day. It was nothing for him to come home with random antique volumes of Whitman, O’Connor, Faulkner, Thoreau, always with the front page bearing his personal inscription and the date.

Last night, after hosting a ladies event in our home (an act he knew had made me crazy with anxiety for several days), he produced a well-worn 1960s printing of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories and novellas. The inscription read simply, LB, my love; I saw this and hoped it might help round out your collection. I think of you constantly. J.

I stared at it in wonderment, sitting in my favorite armchair in the study, post-party cigarette and nightcap of gin punch instantly forgotten.

“I don’t have any Hawthorne anymore…” I said softly, turning the title page over. I skimmed through all my favorite short story titles; I hadn’t read them in half a decade. Long after Jack lay in bed asleep, I stayed up reading about the minister’s black veil, Faith’s pink ribbons, and scarlet letters, underlining my favorite passages in gentle, light pencil.

House of Leaves: Lily Beth’s White Whale

Jack is the only man I’ve ever dated who I felt was as well-read as I was, and in completely different areas. His specialization lay in philosophy and history; mine in feminist theory and literature. The beginning of our relationship was quite anxiety-inducing, to be honest; I struggled with not being able to keep up with his body of knowledge.

Then he gave me Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves with the simple inscription:

LB; the House is me. The House loves you. J.

I read the book, and hated it.

It was complicated. I didn’t get it. It creeped me out. It made obscure philosophical and mythological references I didn’t understand. I thought my husband was trying to talk down to me, or patronize me, or remind me of all the things I didn’t know – he had given me this book, I assumed, to try and educated an ignorant wife.

A year passed, and we slowly started to settle into our roles more comfortably. My anxiety about not being as worldy as he lessened. He, in turn, changed the way he included me in philosophical discussion. Our relationship improved exponentially. And still, House of Leaves sat on the bookshelf, mocking me.

It was a cold day in January when I decided to re-read it out of spite. Here was a book in which my husband had written a perfectly moving inscription, and I didn’t even understand what it meant.

If I was apathetic and frustrated the first time around, I was voracious the second time. I tore through it. With a year of experience being married, all the text suddenly kicked into place. The references were diversions, as superfluous as the horror story plotline. The book was a love story. When Karen ends up on the front lawn of their home, clutching her unconscious husband, I sobbed like a little girl. My husband had planted the seed of a love letter that blossomed like an annual flower, with time and nourishment.

Leaves of Grass: A Talisman

Right before I moved north, my best girlfriend gave me a 1930s printing of Leaves of Grass, with all the passages that reminded her of me marked down. Then she departed for the Peace Corps; I did not have any real communication with her for almost three years. Not only had I lost my best friend to a foreign country, but I had moved myself, to what seemed like an alien land. I had a hard time adjusting.

Leaves of Grass became my talisman to ward off evil and doubt; late at night, I would take it down and listen to the soft rustling of pages, which whispered to me, “Ne te quaesiveris extra.”

Although she is safely back in the states now, her gift of Leaves of Grass is still one of my most cherished posessions.

For Whom the Bell Tolls: An Unspoken Apology

When I was 18, I accompanied my father on a buying trip to Louisiana. I largely had nothing to do, and laid around in the summer heat, devouring books in this shop or that shop. We spent three days traipsing around, and it turns out that the man we’d come to see did not, in fact, have the tools he said he did.

But he did notice that I read.

When it became apparent that we’d wasted time and money traveling hundreds of miles for tools that did not (for whatever reason) exist, he opened up a secret door in his shop, which lead to a beautifully furnished, air-conditioned room: a library.

A library of first editions.

As a student of literature, I stood there, speechless. So did my father.

Walls and walls and walls of first edition books.

“Do you like Hemingway?” he asked.

“I love Hemingway,” I said in a voice so quiet I was amazed he heard it.

He took down a beautifully maintained, first edition copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I turned it over and over in my hands, thinking he was “loaning” it to me for the duration of our stay.

And then he said a creole-sounding word in his thick Louisiana drawl – latshaw? Lapshew?Laitshawn?

“Do you know what that is?” he asked.

I shook my head; I couldn’t even pronounce it, let alone know what it was.

“It means… a gift,” he explained. “A gift of reconciliation.”

But he wasn’t looking at me; he was looking at my father, who nodded and smiled.

72 hours of tense and angry feelings drifted away, and this man knew it – with one swift move, he’d saved relations with my father, who would continue to give him tens of thousands of dollars worth of business in the coming years, all for a first edition book valued at a mere $1,200.

I am so honored and proud to call it mine.

The Art of Giving Books as Gifts

A book makes a good gift because it endures. Long after wine, flowers, or chocolate, a book remains. A book can be easily passed on, given to others; the joy and karma of certain books very well may continue onto dozens – hundreds! – of people you’ve never even met when you give a book.

Your host may love your book – as I love mine – far too much to pass on, especially if it is inscribed. Long after they’ve forgotten a birthday, a party, or a milestone, they will be able to take down your gift, read the inscription, and remember. A book with an inscription is the gift of memory as well as words.

I am not above sending books across the world using Amazon or Barnes and – indeed, they’re inexpensive and fast. But the absolute best thing to do, if you have the time and motivation, is to scope out a solid local bookstore that specializes in used books.

If you’re close to the person, don’t forget to include an inscription on the title page.

If you have not read Larry McMurtry’s Books: A Memoir, you must. Go, buy it now. You will be a better read, more educated person for it. In it, he recounts not so much his personal life as his relationship with rare books and the trials, tribulations, and joys of running his own bookstores.

In one of my favorite stories, he relates a sale worth $100,000:

“The book was Winston Churchill’s Marlborough, the chunky limited edition in 155 copies – not in my mind as attractive a book as the trade edition, but it was limited. What made this set a winner was that it was inscribed in all four volumes to the monarch who was briefly Edward VIII until he abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson: the woman with the molars, as she had sometimes been unkindly described.

Thus the four volumes were inscribed to the Prince of Wales, the Prince of Wales, the king of England, and the duke of Windsor: the same man under three of his titles. The customer who bought the Churchill came from England to take it home.”

Books come in all flavors and sizes, which also makes it easy to personalize to the recipient. Cook books, coffee table books, fiction, poetry, or prose; histories and biographies, your favorite children’s book – the possibilities are endless.

One of my best girlfriends (Rose from “Have Spouse, Will Travel“) gave me Joan Didion’s The White Album for my birthday, a week before I met my husband for the first time. I’d never read Didion; in fact, I tended not to like books of essays, preferring novels or books of short stories instead. I don’t think I’d ever actually owned a book of essays.

And I tore through that sucker like wildfire. I had been in a restless, anxious period in a strange city. I was tapping my foot, ready to have an adventure, but the only thing stretching before me was more snow, rain, and endless economics classes. After having lead four very passionate years of life in undergraduate, all the love seemed to have dissipated in a new city and an advanced degree. And from her “In Hollywood” to “In Bed” to “On the Morning After the Sixties,” Joan Didion’s writing both horrified and inspired me, one page after another.

And then a mere handful of days later, I met my husband.

To say it was a passionate love affair is either hyperbole or moot, but that’s the way it felt to us. Everything about one another was magical and mysterious and wonderful – his big old house, all the hidden restaurants and coffee shops to which he spirited me away, how someone knew him each and every place we went, how he came with a huge extended family of local actors-technicians-artists-painters-writers, the late nights spent driving and talking, private jokes and anecdotes, dreams and plans about traveling together – it was suspended animation, of a sort, and like Didion, I played Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” on the record player.

We slept late, and went here or there for brunch, and then spent twelve hours in the theatre, and then another four or five with friends at night at, meeting a group here and then a group there, traveling hither thither and yon, and then to bed late, or maybe it was early, only to get up and do it again the next day. It was a wonderful – and unsustainable – existence.

As Didion writes:

In the first place time was never of the essence: we would have dinner at nine unless we had it at eleven-thirty, or we could order in later. We would go down to U.S.C. to see the Living Theatre if the limo came at the very moment when no one had just made a drink or a cigarette or an arrangement to meet Ultra Violet at the Montecito. In any case David Hockney was coming by. In any case Ultra Violet was not at the Montecito. In any case we would go down to U.S.C. and see the Living Theatre tonight or we would see the Living Theatre another night, in New York, or Prague. First we wanted sushi for twenty, steamed clams, vegetable vindaloo and many rum drinks with gardenias for our hair. First we wanted a table for twelve, fourteen at the most, although there might be six more, or eight more, or eleven more: there would never be one or two more, because music people did not travel in groups of “one” or “two”…

We’ve been married three years now, and I am so incredible thankful for Rose’s gift of The White Album, because I can take it down and read its passages and remember that brief, crazy time when my husband and I first met. Through Didion’s writing, the edges of my own memories become sharp and still again.

What’s the only thing better than giving a book? Giving a book in someone’s name.

Visit the Dewey Donation System (brainchild of Pam at to assist libraries in need.

Note: The title of this article is lifted from Edward P. Morgan’s quote in which he says:
A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face.  It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.
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  1. […] Aug My best friend Rose (who you may remember from “The Case for Books” and “Have Spouse, Will Travel“) and I have a saying we shoot back and forth at […]

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