A couple decades ago, I asked novelist John Updike and some other luminaries about their favorite Christmas gift ever.
The ever-gracious Updike wrote back: “What the mind goes to first is a copy of a book by James Thurber called ‘Men, Women and Dogs.’ This must have been in the early ’40s, so I would have been 11 or 12. It was a book of both cartoons and Thurber prose. I remember the delight with which I opened it. It had a lovely fresh smell of glue and new paper. For me, it was a connection to the wonderful world of New York sophistication.”
The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner added, “The opening of the book on the floor was all mixed up with the smell of the Christmas tree and the quality of December light outside the windows and remains in my mind as an island of Christmas joy.”
Although Updike’s remembrance was most evocative, a number of other notables also recalled a book (or set of books) as their all-time favorite holiday gift.
There’s something special about tearing back bright Christmas wrapping paper and seeing a well-considered book. For me, it’s always more of a pleasure if it’s not something currently on the best-seller list, but rather something the giver has particularly enjoyed.
Some years back, a favorite nephew gave me the first volume of Richard Holmes’s biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English poet, critic, and philosopher, about whom I knew little beyond his authorship of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Left to my own devices, I likely never would have bought or read it. But it was such a mesmerizing immersion (a stately pleasure tome, if you will) in an extraordinary literary life that I consumed it in a week or two — and bought volume two as soon as I could get my hands on it. Scarcely a month goes by that I don’t find myself thinking of some aspect of Coleridge’s life. (One sad but fascinating 19th century parallel to our current era is the way the liberal dispensing of opium and laudanum by doctors and pharmacists had made addiction, of the sort Coleridge developed and suffered mightily from, widespread.)
Reading pleasures have a long life. Another gifted book, one I recall from half a century ago, was “Taash and the Jesters,” by Ellen Kindt McKenzie, a magical tale about an orphan boy who saves a baby from witches — and by so doing, plunges himself into a dangerous adventure. I had first read it, or had it read to me, as a library book, and was so taken with the story that I simply had to own it myself. It wasn’t in any of the local bookstores in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, so obtaining it meant either a trip to Spokane, Washington or contacting the publisher. I don’t know which my parents did, but I certainly do recall the satisfaction of having it among my small book collection, which also included my two favorites from Rhoda Leonard’s wildlife adventure series.
If receiving a thoughtfully chosen book can be the advent of an adventure or a perspective-widening experience, giving a well-received book can be almost as pleasing. The book that began my lifelong fascination with politics was Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” a story of an idealistic southern politician who is corrupted by power after he rises to become governor. This year I’m giving it to a close friend’s son, who is now the age I was when it first captivated me — and keeping my fingers crossed.
But on the long, cold, Patriots-free Sunday just past, it proved too tempting. The book became my gift to myself. It’s diverting enough to pull you from bed at sunrise — even if you don’t have cats to remind you with a chorus of early morning meows that certain bellies are rumbling, thank you very much.
Happy holidays. May the season bring a book that transports you.