Anyone who enjoys reading knows the intimate delight of a really good book. But enjoying a terrific read is in too many ways a solitary pleasure – how can people in a crowded waiting room know why some funny line provokes a sudden laugh? How can anyone else really appreciate a golden turn of phrase?
That’s why I believe in giving away terrific books. Sharing the pleasure of a marvelous read is the way to turn it from a solitary experience into shared intimacy with another person.
I recently enjoyed this opportunity with the 14-year-old granddaughter of a family friend. She gave ME her favorite book. I just finished reading “Anne Frank and Me,” by Cherie Bennett and Jeff Gottesfeld. It was both an insight into the young lady’s view of the world and herself at that awkward age of 14.
It’s a pretty good story, too. Briefly, it is a story of the Holocaust, and of the struggles teens have finding any reason to care about that horror, more than half a century after it took place.
On finishing this book I felt not only the happiness of a good yarn, but also of the connection with the shy young lady who told me about it.
Now perhaps I understand how others felt after they read the many, many books I have given away since the 1970’s.
For me, giving a book away began in the 1970’s with Roger Angell’s superb volume, “Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion.” Normally I don’t read sports books. But somehow Angell’s came out just when the supply of things to read had been used up, and what a marvelous discovery!
Angell might be the most elegant writer about any sport, and especially baseball. Since time is limited here, let me simply give YOU this book – and recommend to your special attention the entire first chapter, which at last actually explains the mystifying game of baseball. Also, don’t miss the opening paragraph of Chapter 10. And you will never forget the story of the baseball fan caught listening to a game on a transistor radio while attending an opera.
I probably bought about 15 copies of Angell’s book to give away. The habit has persisted with science fiction, mysteries, humor, mythology, and every other genre.
Giving away books I have loved reading is different from giving books as a gift. Almost everyone who ends up with one of these volumes is a stranger, or otherwise someone not usually on the list of persons who expect presents from little old me.
Once I made a special trip to the bookstore to get a copy of Neil Stephenson’s “Quicksilver,” the first of three immense tomes in a campy series about the 17th century. Then I returned to a night club to present the book to the woman taking cover charges at the door. We struck up a quick conversation about the baroque era, and I just knew she’d be knocked out by Stephenson’s fantastic storytelling.
Over the decades many different books passed from my hands to strangers and acquaintances. But there have been a few that always come back up. I guess they are favorites, each selected according to the tastes of the recipient. One is Sarah B. Franklin’s incredible “Daughter of Troy.” Another is “Household Gods,” jointly composed by Harry Turtledove and Judith Tarr. But the all-time favorite, good for any taste, is Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale.”
Helprin’s tale is the story of the heart and spirit of America. It is a love story for New York City – a place for which I have much lesser appreciation. It is written in the magical realism style, with the most wonderful use of language. The characters are gripping. The plot is impossible to untangle until the end. I still remember every moment, every sight and sound and smell and new thing that happened on the day I finished reading this book 25 years ago.
So my gift to anyone now is “Winter’s Tale,” by Mark Helprin. Read it. Wade through the vast sweep of it – this may be the finest book by an American author in the last half of the 20th century. And as you read, look for that wonderful moment when Helprin compares a railroad locomotive to a honeybee!
And no matter which book touches you so much that it just has to be shared, give it away! Join your mind with a complete stranger’s. There are always more copies, someplace. We aren’t talking about Gutenberg bibles here, after all. This is a good habit. I believe giving books away is one small step toward world peace, harmony among the nations, and more complete understanding between all people.
By the way – it was no accident that young lady gave me her book, complete with a sweet inscription inside the cover. I asked her for it. And then gave I her a little money to buy two more copies, with instructions to always keep an extra copy around to give away.
You see, once you get the habit, you can’t buy just one copy of a really good book. This I know – this I believe.