Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Books as Presents

This December, I found myself looking at Mary Beard's SPQR, purchased for a friend's present, and wondering. And about the same time I bought a similarly sized biography of George Marshall for another friend. It occurred to me that either book amounts to something between a couple of weeks and month of reading, for both parties are employed and have other responsibilities. Is that a present, or a tax?

Left to myself, I would mostly have given books as gifts over the years. Sometimes this worked well. It worked well with my father, for our tastes were similar, and I could assume that the volume of Adams or Liebling or Boll would be what he wanted. It works well enough with various friends. It has and has not worked with my wife: she found and read the remaining novels of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels after I gave her the first; but others haven't much interested her.

As a recipient, I have twinges of guilt at books sitting unread. A review of a collection of Norman Mailer's letters said that he spoke of a "little guilt mountain" of friends' letters not yet returned and a "big guilt mountain" of friends' books not yet read. Almost nobody writes me letters, unless in the form of Christmas cards; and such family and friends as write books write them on topics I am not expected to keep up on. But now and then I look at the books received on birthdays or at Christmas, and yet unread, and think, Really, I should read that.

The good news is that Three Critics of the Enlightenment by Isaiah Berlin is so far fascinating. Is it good or bad news that I may have to read some Herder next?


  1. Leaving aside the whole books as presents conundrum, I'm suspicious of Mary Beard, along with all other academics who cannot resist the impulse to become celebs

    1. Mary Beard is not that I know a celebrity in the US. (If asked to fill a 2" x 3" index card with information about her, I'd have to write large or pad.) But indeed, the academic who becomes a public intellectual can be tedious.