The gift of provocation

December 14, 1997

In all your life, what was the best book you ever received as a present and who gave it to you?; Why do you think it was chosen?

Lisa Schwarzbaum

Film critic for Entertainment Weekly.

"The collected poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay." I was 14 years old in the Sixties, I favored black leotards and a gloomy demeanor, and I wrote of my private suburban agonies (which could all be solved, I thought, if I lived in Greenwich Village) with a leaky Rapidograph pen in an oversized journal. With this fat volume of Millay's lovely bohemian folderol, my mother was able to suggest, delicately, that if I was going to mope, I might as well try to make art out of my precious, hoarded miseries - a moment of revelation for any young writer.

Victoria Sorota

An Episcopal priest and vicar of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Baltimore, she holds a doctorate in music as well as a master of divinity degree. An organist and university music teacher before ordination, she has written widely about creativity, theology and music.

When I was 11, I was given a large, colorful book titled "The Wonderful World of Music," by Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst (Garden City N.Y.: Garden City Books, 1958). The inscription to me by Bette, a woman who had lived with our family for a brief time, reads: "May you always love and enjoy music as you do now." I adored this book. It opened a whole new world to me through fascinating historical illustrations, manuscripts (including a facsimile of Bach's own musical notation), modern art, photographs of instruments, cathedrals, concert halls, performers and composers, and an easily understood introduction to the materials of music. What a magnificent Christmas present Bette gave me. She knew me better than I knew myself. Years later I would attend Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Glenn McNatt

Sun arts columnist, was previously an editorial writer for 10 years at The Sun and began his career as a college English teacher.

The best book I ever got was "The Little Engine That Could," from my parents, who wanted to teach me I could do anything I wanted if I was wiling to work hard.

Joan Mellen

Author of 13 books, including "Privilege: The Enigma of Sasha Bruce," a biography of David Bruce's youngest daughter. Her most recent book is "Hellman and Hammett," a dual biography.

It came from my cousin Seth, just released from the Navy after World War II. My parents had never thought of buying me a book. So it was also my first. I was 5 years old and the book was "Anne of Green Gables." The story of a little girl who was unhappy and unappreciated, and then appreciated and cherished. It provided with the persistent fantasy of my life.

Donna Rifkind

Writes for the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the New Criterion, for which she used to be assistant managing editor.

The best book ever given to me as a gift was "A Child's History of the World," written in 1924 by V.M. Hillyer, the headmaster of a patrician boys' school. I received the book from my father, who had himself been entranced by it when he was a boy. He remembered it for the remarkable way it made the history of Western civilization come alive in a child's imagination, without condescension or a trace of stuffiness. The book is out of print and mostly forgotten now. But we've managed to track down a few copies in used bookstores to share with my two young sons.

Terry Teachout

The music critic of Commentary, writes the "Front Row Center" column for Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress. He is at work on "H. L. Mencken: A Life."

Twenty-nine years ago, my father's half-brother gave me Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Complete Sherlock Holmes" (Doubleday) as a Christmas present, for the perfectly logical reason that I'd told him in no uncertain terms that nothing would please me more. I must have been a wise child, for I still own that same fat volume, somewhat battered and minus the dust jacket but otherwise in perfectly readable condition, and it now reposes on a bookshelf an arm's length away from the desk at which I am writing these words, easily available for instant relaxation after a hard day's work.

Sujata Massey

Author of "The Salaryman's Wife" and the forthcoming "Zen Attitude."

"Letters Home," by Sylvia Plath, given to me at age 16 by my mother. My mother had admired Sylvia Plath's poetry and was trying to pass on the literary torch. However, these letters describing a young woman's academic awakening at Smith College were so alluring that I decided to leave home in Minnesota for college in the East. I never moved back - although I still write letters to my mother.

William K. Marimow

Managing editor of The Sun, was a reporter for 15 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. His work has earned him two Pulitzer Prizes.

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