As the publishing industry grapples with how to make the gifting of an ebook a more pleasurable experience, and experiments with the creation of more beautiful and exclusive editions of print titles for the gift market, we asked Ralph Rochester to look back at the gifting of books and how this very act has seeped into works of great literature.
The giving of a book, the right sort of book, has long been seen as essentially wise giving. The best kind of gift, it is argued, is one that will endure and be a constant reminder of the intention of the giver. For the giver, choosing a book as a gift for someone can be an act whereby he or she can hope to share a discipline, an enthusiasm, an appreciation, an adventure, a world view. There is in the choice something personal of the giver but also some account of how the giver expects the recipient to act or react. The gift is a command, a request, a supplication, an appeal: “Read me!” says the book or, perhaps, “Please read me!” or “Read me one day!” or “I beg you on my knees to read me.” At the very least the book and the giver of the book expect the recipient to open it.
Which is why it is sad when one finds a book, like this under my hand, where the endpaper is neatly inscribed: “To E.G. Wolfe, A Christmas Present from Aunt Lucy.” but the pages remain unopened. Did E. G. Wolfe perhaps drop dead before he could look at Aunt Lucy’s gift or did he let The Surgeon’s Log sit on his shelves for years? If the latter, let us be kind, he might still have enjoyed looking at the gold lettering on the spine from time to time with the thought: “Ah yes. It was dear Aunt Lucy gave me that. Fine book. Must get round to reading it one of these days.”
We know from fiction that educational establishments learned early that books make great presents from the giver’s point of view. In 1815 the departing Becky Sharp, of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair famously throws her copy of Doctor Johnson’s Dictionary from the window of the coach over the wall and into the garden of Miss Pinkerton’s Academy and no doubt Miss Pinkerton was sorely grieved although she had a cupboard full of the ‘Dixonary’ and had only paid two-and-ninepence per volume.
Tom Brown goes home from Rugby with “two beautifully-bound volumes” of Doctor Arnold’s sermons which his tutor has given him. No doubt these too come by the cupboardful and at cost price. Tom, although he has learned by now to love “the Doctor”, is unlikely to read them. We can, however, be sure that they will sit proudly in his house in the Vale of the White Horse and they will certainly survive him and for all we know may well yet be gathering dust there.
A hundred years or so after Becky Sharp leaves the Misses Pinkerton, at Speech Day at Willie Maddison’s grammar school, Willie being the protagonist of Henry Williamson’s neglected novel Dandelion Days, there is evidence of the same kind of economy: “The Golding brothers, who were Prefects, had a fine reception; their little band of relatives, who had secured the best seats, applauded quite noticeably. Both had a long armful of books all with gilt edges; like most of the prizes, they looked very costly, but actually they were bankrupt stock and publisher remainders.” Willie’s own prize was a set of three volumes on The Bible in Art. “These three volumes were of immense size and thickness, which perhaps compensated, he thought ruefully, for the subject.”
So much for school prizes! The personal gift should hopefully be more generously funded and cautiously directed than the institutional and the careful giver can hope to bring great joy to many although here too the gift seems sometimes sadly to miss the mark. Perhaps in a slip-case and beautifully wrapped, as only a book can be wrapped, the lover gives to her true love a favourite book of verse, as though offering her heart on a silver platter, hoping desperately that he will love what she loves. She feels that her future happiness depends on his liking the book but this of course is because she is blinded by passion. We who are wiser know that he can hate the book and still love the young woman with all his heart, so all might yet be well. The parent or grandparent gives The Railway Children or Swallows and Amazons or some other dusty favourite to the child who wants only Harry Potter or Horrid Henry. The lover’s face falls, the child’s face falls, the giver’s face falls. The lovingly chosen books hide beneath their covers and look like failures, but wait! Fortunately these are not tatty paperbacks that will fall apart in thirty years. They are, if not gilt-edged, carefully chosen, fine hard-backed editions that will not fade away. They will be glorious on the bookshelves for centuries and one day, the Fates willing, they will be read with love and consequences. There are always consequences.
Richmal Crompton knew about the consequences of books given. When William Brown, Just William, receives as a birthday present, Engineering Explained to Boys, an engineering disaster is only a paragraph away. When his Uncle Frederick gives him a book called Hunted by the Reds the consequence can only be that the Outlaws will find a Bolshevik in their leafy suburb. When Ginger’s aunt gives him King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as a birthday present it is, of course, an invitation to the Outlaws to be the Knights of the Square Table. How many of those delightful “Williams” with Thomas Henry’s charming illustrations that were given as presents to boys, neatly wrapped in brown paper and tied with real string, some eighty years ago are still ranked on bookshelves up and down the land and still taken down and read again and again?
Which brings us to the glory of bookshelves and to the great Sydney Smith who liked to say: “No furniture so charming as books, even if you never open them or read a single word.” His daughter, Lady Holland, wrote of him: “When a present of books arrived… he was almost child-like in his delight, particularly if the binding was gay; and I have often been summoned … to arrange and re arrange them on the shelves, in order to place them in the most conspicuous situation.”
That the wall of books remains popular is clear from many photograph portraits of great men and women of all walks of life who pose in front of their books as though their library were a part of themselves. We live in an age of change. The e-book readers will come and be welcome. I, however, can only believe that the walls of books will stand for ever and the best of gifts will continue to be given and received for an age and an age.
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