The Gift of a Book

When you give a book, you present another person with an object, an experience, and a keepsake, all in one.

It’s obvious enough how a traditional book is an object — a tangible, tactile thing that can be picked up, turned over, and unwrapped. Indeed, one of the many delights of books are their physicality: the feeling of pages beneath your fingers, the new (or old) book smell when you put your nose to it and breathe in deeply. As physical objects, books can be held, put down, and picked up again, any time.

The experience of a book — and I mean the immersive experience — is, of course, the reading of it, a pleasure which can last several hours, either condensed into a single sitting, or stretched out over a long period of weeks, months, or years. This is perhaps the primary reason that we acquire books: to read them. And yet, if you think of the life of a book, most of it is spent sitting on a shelf, either prior to being read, or after. The experience of reading the book, then — in the book’s entire life and ours as its caretaker — takes up but a small fraction, generally speaking.

It is perhaps less self-explanatory as to how a book is also a keepsake, but it is: the same as any other memento that was part of, and reminds us of and points us back to, the experience it represents.

When I open up an old shoe box, for instance, and see a train ticket, I am reminded of the train ride I used it for; yes, the particulars of when and why I went on the trip, but more often, I’m reminded of the journey itself. And yet most often, when I see a keepsake, I don’t necessarily think in particulars: instead, I feel the predominant emotions that I have associated with that experience. Likewise, when I glance at my shelf and see the spine of a book I once read, I’m reminded more of the feeling of the lovely ride it was to read it.

Keepsakes don’t just remind us of experiences though, but also those we experience them with. Books, then, are physical reminders, not only of the experience of reading, but also of the person who gave the book.

There’s a beautiful tradition in Iceland of giving a book on Christmas Eve, and then for everyone to spend the night reading. I like how this combines the giving of the physical gift with the experience of reading. I imagine that reading a book as a small group of loved ones like this would create an additional aspect of it as a keepsake.

This year for Christmas, I decided to give books to pretty much everyone on my list. As I read a version of this post a few days before Christmas to my family — and they all discovered they were receiving books — they voted to adopt the Icelandic tradition, at least for this year.

The beauty of the gift of a book is this: it is both the experience and the reminder of the experience, a keepsake of the person who gave it to you, and those who were there when you read.

Afterwards, you can see your keepsake on its shelf, take it down, open it up, and be reminded of your journey-experience, or take a new one.


Question: What traditions do you have regarding books?