Book Gifts and Reading Journeys

There’s something special about being given a book as a gift. The giver has clearly thought about it. To give a book can mean that you think the recipient will enjoy reading it; or should read it; or will benefit from reading it; or, perhaps, will have their horizons widened by reading it. Then there is the book as an object. This is not a gift that is no longer there after it has been consumed. It’s not a gift you look at and then place in a cupboard. It’s a gift you spend time with; that tells you something memorable; that becomes for a short (or perhaps long) time a part of your mental landscape, a part of your day.

The best book gifts are those that open up a new avenue of exploration. Perhaps a new author, a new genre, a new period, a new country, or a combination of those things. Just as books as gifts are special, so are the recommendations of friends and acquaintances. These are to be followed-up or discarded as you think fit of course, but on occasion they, too, open up new directions and enthusiasms. A chance remark about an area of reading can result in ‘have you read…’ and the pleasure that comes from a single recommendation spawning a whole strand of reading stretching out for years to come, as one book can sometimes be the key that unlocks scores of others.

One of the working practices of my Fellow Librarian boss in Cambridge when an academic suggested a book for the library was, once it was acquired, to trawl through it and order all the key texts referenced in it, so that a single recommendation became the basis for the development of a new area of collecting. Frustrating though this could be when the bulk of the works required were long out of print, it was a perfectly sensible way of collection-building, based on the premise that a key text identified by one of our tutors would be likely to be the key to that area of study.

As an example, a Christmas gift of Italo Calvino’s ‘Collection of Sand’, a late book of essays on historical and artistic subjects, is providing a small revelation this January. Like most literature students, a reading of ‘If on a Winter’s night a traveller…’ was part of my education, but I would never have thought of picking up anything else by Calvino. Until now. This is the Penguin Modern Classics edition, elegantly translated by Martin McLaughlin, and it fits in the hand as only a Penguin paperback can, with suitably soft spine and that iconic clear and easy-to-read page layout (set in 10.5/13pt Dante MT Std if you’re interested). It’s a perfect design and a joy to read. Other paperback imprints are available. None of them read like a Penguin.

Calvino’s essays are a revelation because he writes so accessibly about some difficult concepts, which is a boon for someone who would love to have the intellectual equipment to understand some of the great writers and artists but is very happy to have a guide with passion and clarity to spare. Highlights so far (I’m half way through) have been his description of the narrative recorded by Trajan’s Column and the story inside Delacroix’s painting of ‘Liberty Leading the People’. Two things I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of reading about brilliantly described by an author I wouldn’t have thought of reading. My potential reading for 2017 has just changed direction a bit, all thanks to a thoughtful gift. This was, of course, a gift from my brother. The books we give each other will sometimes have this effect and sometimes not, I suspect, but the choices are always imaginative on both sides. Which is where I came in.

There are other directions I’m planning to take in my reading this year, thanks to a pointer or two from my former tutor. Landscape is now being joined with poetry from 1950s and 1960s Britain, and the plan is to read around this and do a bit of blogging on it this year. My track record in updating this blog isn’t great, but I’ll give it a go, because it’s good to share, and maybe set someone else off on a reading journey they weren’t expecting.