I give books. For birthdays. For Christmas. For baby showers and retirement parties. Even for those you-need-a-little-cheer days that pop up randomly.
I give them because they are one of life’s great treasures. More than a gift of paper, ink and binding, the present of a book spells a quick and satisfying escape, a door to an unknown world, the joy of solitude and, also in equal measure, the sweet sharing with like-minded readers.
I cannot think of another tangible item — not the feel of a silk dress, not the smell of a new car, not the taste of a dark chocolate truffle (which is saying a lot) — that provides me such pleasure. Perhaps that is why I told my family, a family comprised of number crunchers and stethoscope wearers, that I wanted to be a writer when I could barely draft a paragraph.
Imagine possessing the power of persuasion, the ability to create entire universes peopled with flawed, interesting characters! I laugh now at the blind brazenness of such hope.
I discovered books — rather, the wonder of reading — when I was in second grade, as I struggled with a new and undecipherable language, the language that would afford me a good living decades later. Those ant-sized letters that marched down the page with the certainty of avenging angels turned into words that shaped into sentences that created paragraphs that grew into stories that sneaked into my soul and stole my quivering, impressionable heart.
They’re tugging at it still, those delightful stories, pinching the tender spots, nicking the scars and calluses, but also lifting that heart, everywhere and always. When I enter a bookstore or a library, the special musty smell of paper, so welcoming, so familiar, is enough to send me spiraling back to the cramped public library of my early childhood, now an urban building that houses the Miami offices of Avon products. Back then, before Twitter and YouTube and Facebook, before the instant gratification of tablets and smart phones, there was the slow, slippery immersion into plot, into character, into the lyricism of thoughts simultaneously resting and taking flight on the enchanted rectangle of a page.
There still is that immersion, that satisfaction. I know this to be true even as others bemoan the death of print and lament the muscling in of digital, of Google Books and a host of other technologies turning the world of words topsy turvy. Maybe I remain optimistic because I know our need for stories will never cease and that information is the most viable currency of our culture.
These days I’m fortunate to witness the magic of literary encounters with my granddaughters. At a year old, the youngest maps out new territory with all her senses. She tastes, rubs and sniffs her books with glorious abandon. The 2-year-old outlines each letter with a stubby finger, awed by the journey. The 4-year-old turns the page with the authority of the converted, inventing a story to match the pictures.
And the twin kindergartners? Lucky them, they’re old enough to sound out vowels and consonants, practically singing through the rhythm and melody of a sentence.
“This,” I recently told them, opening a copy of the P.D. Eastman 1961 classic, Go, Dog. Go! “was your father’s favorite book when he was about your age."
They took turns reading.
“A green dog over a tree,” recited one. And the other: “A yellow dog under a tree.”
Ah, the call and response of a soul searching new shores. That is why I give books.