Books that are for giving -- a season for nourishment and ecstasy

November 17, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

For most of my life I have suffered from an apparently pathologically self-disserving vice: I lend books, unbidden. I have attacked this folly with the tool of reason and failed either to cure or to comprehend it. Unless, months later, I go to great lengths to remember and seek out the recipient, this lending compulsion almost always means I lose the book forever. That I have, in truth, given it away.

This is the season to indulge such urges. On these pages today, 25 interesting people do just that.

Among all their responses to our two queries, what strikes me most strongly is how often and how intensely the apparent purpose of their gifts is delight.

Some, of course, are given to inform or teach or argue. But even those mainly seem driven by a spirit that the reading of the books, the revelations of them, is - however mildly - akin to ecstasy. Joan Mellen puts it best, as so often she does, in describing the effect of reading a favored book: "The Earth will move. The world will never look the same."

We could argue late into the night, I suppose, about the alternatives, but to start that fight, let me insist that there is no more spiritually nourishing act on earth than giving books to people who will read them.

A couple of years ago, I talked - listened, actually - to a great number of people in an effort to design these book pages in a manner most useful and satisfying for the largest number of readers. Several strong, close-to-unanimous opinions emerged.

Lists - bah, humbug

One was that lists and special treatments - traditional holiday buying guides or vacation suggestions or the like - are not useful and are seldom used. The industry loves them, of course: Publishers, booksellers, authors, advertisers seem to believe that such listings increase the sales of books, or at least of the books that are cited.

Most of the people I listened to disagreed. They said that if they were present-shopping, or indulging their own tastes, it was a hundred times more likely that they would simply go to a good or appropriate book shop and leave themselves enough time to browse and wander. To pick up a book and thumb through it, or even to weigh it in their hands, was powerful; to see its title in a listing with dozens of others was not.

So I decided to try to find ways to be helpful to you on - or rather in time for - special book times, without slipping lazily into a

traditional catch-all guideteria. Thus was born the contents of this week's pages, and those of other occasional similar exercises here.

(The exception we make to this abandonment of conventional listings is the guided inventory to books written in and about the greater Baltimore area that James Bready laboriously put together for us - and you - again this year, and which we published two Sundays ago. We do that simply because with one or two exceptions it is difficult to find a broad sweep of local books in one place, where the buyer can do a better job than any listing we might print.)

In today's offerings, we do not include our conventional citation of publisher, page-length and price with book titles. One reason is that many of them exist in multiple editions, and another is simply to save space and thus to be able to include more voices and more ideas.

Anyone who wants to follow the advice of today's contributors should ask a competent book shop to look the volume up, by title and/or author, in "Books in Print" or its own electronic database. If that fails, any major public library should be able to provide access to an electronic "card catalog" - from which a citation can be taken and eferred to for special ordering at a book shop.

Buy on the short side

I will add, unbidden, one general piece of advice:

When in doubt about books to give, buy short. That is, favor slimmer volumes. In large part, I believe, because of the deterioration of editing craft and staffs at major publishing houses, books go on getting longer and longer. I hear no other general comment about books anything like as often as I am told that this book or that one was too long to finish. So all other considerations being equal (which, of course, they never are), briefer books are greater kindnesses.

Unless, of course, the recipient adores huge, meandering volumes.

Having imposed on 25 already well-occupied people with these questions, I suppose I have an obligation to answer them myself.

I have a dozen, more, answers to the first question, if I consider books of all ages, rather than simply books published this year. From time to time in this space, I have mentioned a lot of them, the books that for private reasons, oft times mysterious to me, most powerfully fuel the engine that makes me go on reading.

Giving books to other people - however well we know them - is a perilous business, subject to all sorts of misunderstanding, near misses and total failure.

But if I must choose one, here: On the principle of delight, I will give to those who have not read it Salman Rushdie's "The Moor's Last Sigh." I have read a great number of books this year. None has more powerfully moved, nourished and enchanted me.

Not surprisingly, the most frequent legatee of the second challenge is President Clinton. Ever the sheep, I will join the herd and with one more recommendation for him: "The Boy Scout Handbook."

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