It's time to talk of giving books: A most nourishing act of love

December 14, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Barring wedding rings, no gift holds greater potential for affecting a human life than does a book. Every year at about this time, publications other than The Sun offer lists of books to be given as presents, compiled and suggested in an almost infinite variety of manners. Many of them are made with care and thoughtfulness. Many more simply reflect recent market trends, or record the year's sales successes, in categories. Others have sharply focused perspective and intent - the best example I know being James Bready's two legs of 1997's Baltimore region books, one published here on Nov. 7 and the other to come next week.

At The Sun, we hope our readers find need for no other newspaper. But magazines abound, websites crawl and broadcasts blare with holiday gift suggestions. Go to them, if you need. But if you are of a mind to give books this season, do think beyond simply the practical and popular.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with giving any book, but giving one that holds the possibility of catalyzing great and good change in the life of the recipient is an act of love.

It was in that light that we asked people to cite their own most important books by answering the question printed at the top of this page. The answers are a greater delight than I dared expect when a treasured friend and I thought out the question.

Read them for yourself. As you do, please think of the best gift book of your own life. Then ask yourself this: What other present have you ever have received that has, in the test of time, been more important?

Dramatic choice

For myself, I went through the process of answering the question, which had seemed so easy when I put it to others. A dozen books ambled or cantered across my consciousness. All were powerful. Finally, my answer is "Cyrano de Bergerac," the play by Edmond Rostand, in the translation by Brian Hooker. As I write this, my elbow is resting on the copy (Henry Holt, 1926) my father gave me in the 1940s.

I think I was about 9, or 10 perhaps. And I am quite sure I know why he gave it to me: I did not suffer from appearing grotesque, as did Cyrano, but my father was a loving man and believed profoundly in courage and he wanted me - figuratively - to wear some modern equivalent of Cyrano's white plume, to go through life undaunted, unbowing.

I doubt I have succeeded as well as he might have liked, but the aspiration has brought me neither harm nor shame.

I read the play again the other day, and remembered for first time in many years that, despite the fact that as a kid I was maddeningly inept at memorizing anything, I had learned by heart the first-act "Ah, no, young sir! You are too simple" speech, in which Cyrano, eloquently mocking his own deformity, puts an arrogant, posturing bully so neatly in his place as to make dramatic history. I was fond of repeating the speech loudly while trampling the woods, brandishing a walking stick fresh-cut with my pocket knife.

It was later, when Jose Ferrer made his wonderful Cyrano movie, that I found out how truly, grossly bad an actor I was. Perhaps that, and the present that led to the perception, saved me from a dismally failed life in the theater.

I do hope you find guidance on these pages today for last- minute presents and for future strategies. It's not too early to plan for books to enrich and even ennoble the life of today's 1-year-old.

But even if you are not plotting so grandly, give the idea good thought. It's a serious matter, this giving of books.

One addition to the responses we publish today, which I think belongs in this space rather than the columns above, comes from my assistant, Jennifer Mabry, without whose labors these pages would never occur. Her most memorable gift book was "My First White Friend," by Patricia Raybon. She wrote me: "My father subtly gave it to me after it was published. I think he gave it to me because my own life has paralleled Raybon's in many ways and the author is a dear friend of my parents."

I am far too conscious of the delicacy of matching the tastes and yearnings of even close friends with single books - or any other gift - to propose any here. But all my life I have suffered from the habit of giving books away, to the point that often I find myself without a copy of most of my very favorites, books I need to read a few pages from at odd but frequent times.

Five favorites

I may have blocked a memory or two, but I believe I have given away copies of five books more often than all others.

They are: "Henderson, the Rain King," by Saul Bellow (Penguin paperback, $11.95); "A River Runs Through It," by Norman Maclean (University of Chicago Press, $24.95); "The Sot-Weed Factor," by John Barth (Doubleday, $18.95); "A Confederacy of Dunces," by John Kennedy Toole (Random House Value, $9.99, or Louisiana State University Press, $22.95) and "The Good Son," by Craig Nova (published by Delacorte but which, sadly, is out of print, so try your library and used book shops).

Why each of those books has made my life a sweeter journey I cannot explain, at least not in the space here. Some day I may try. But meanwhile, scanning the best-seller lists and the pile of published seasonal gift guides that were cluttering my desk until I put them in the trash a few minutes ago, I can offer no fonder suggestions than those.

If you have already bought and wrapped every present you are going to give this year, and if you are of a mind to please yourself and me as well, go out and buy a book for yourself.

Oh, yes, and read it. It may change your life.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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