Commentary: Books are the great perennial gift
Some of my strongest, fondest memories concern books. I’m enamored of their smell, their deckled edges, their myriad cover art. Opening a book and taking a big whiff before I fix myself a beverage and commence reading is one of life’s delights. As a young child, my mom would pile my siblings and me into the car and take us to the Western Branch Library in South Bend for story hour. There, I discovered Ferdinand the Bull, The Secret Garden, and sleuth Nancy Drew, whose moxie and exploits thrilled me throughout my tween years.
That library is also where I shivered through a mid-summer movie presentation of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, both from the blasting air conditioner and the images my young mind conjured. Even though our family didn’t take a lot of vacations, I did. I had a library card, which I still keep in my jewelry box, and a bicycle. My first library card, a raised-numbered, tattered beauty, still brings back precious memories of learning and escaping. With it, I could travel anywhere I wanted to just by opening a book; to destinations past or future, meeting lots of dynamic characters along the way. I’d pedal over and peruse the shelves, gathering books for the coming week. The next week, I’d trade in another Nancy Drew mystery or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for more transporting stories.
It wasn’t until high school that I got into critically reading books for my English and Composition classes. In this realm, I discovered Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, The Great Gatsby, and numerous other volumes that steadily fed my teen angst. In our country’s current state, I wonder why teachers continue to assign Catcher instead of another book that’s also a coming-of-age story with a fraught father-son relationship, poverty, and racism. It’s James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. Baldwin, much like songwriter Marvin Gaye, is an author whose prescience continues to resonate with me even six decades after much of his canon was written, like Marvin when he sang, What’s Going On?
I adore sharing my love of reading through the gift of books. I gave my dear friend the uber-realist Kate Bowler’s No Cure for Being Human to sustain her as she valiantly fights cancer. That lovely, meaningful book is perfect for anyone who’s well, human. It’s helped me find solace and perspective as I manage my own depression and anxiety. Bowler, a cancer survivor herself, eloquently eviscerated the gospel of prosperity in her previous book, Blessed, which elucidates the arrogance of the pursuit of power and wealth as gifts from God when Christ’s purpose on this Earth was to teach and redeem us.
Last Christmas, I gave my great nieces and nephew, my best friend, and my husband books. In our family, these are treasured gifts. I love telling new parents about the book trick I did with my kids, now in their twenties, when they were toddlers. I’d set out three of their faves, recite the first sentence of one, and watch them crawl to the correct tome, pick it up, and climb into my lap for a story and a snuggle. This fun ritual both astounded and delighted me. My cousins, nieces, and nephew were skeptical when I told them about trying this with their own kids, and amazed that it worked, every time. My cousin David even called me from Los Angeles, tripping on how much fun my cover art trick was, and that it also worked with his son.
Last Christmas I received two memorable books that I’ve pondered throughout this year. The first was Ai Weiwei’s 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, and Ann Marks remarkable, well-researched biography, Vivian Maier Developed, was the second. In Weiwei’s book, he details his poet father’s and his own struggles as artists under China’s repressive regime, highlighting the human spirit and the struggle to survive, bear witness to injustice, and create, despite the danger and the cost. In Marks’ book, her impeccable writing and meticulous research capture the life of mid-century street photographer Vivian Maier, whose work was almost lost save for Chicago filmmaker John Maloof, who purchased volumes of her photos and undeveloped film in 2007 at an auction of her storage locker contents following Maier’s death. During her life, Maier struggled with mental illness, misogyny, and unresolved trauma as she created a body of work that masterfully captured people who society routinely overlooked, in a style uniquely her own. Saved from destruction, her work is now displayed in galleries around the world, featured on various Instagram accounts bearing her name, and was even made into the documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, directed by Maloof.
If you’re in doubt as to perfect gift for someone on your list, peruse your local bookstore or bookshop.org and check out their myriad offerings. There, you’ll find the perfect book for anyone on your list, ensuring that the love of reading will transport you and your loved ones this holiday season and beyond. Happy reading!
Music: "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye