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The gift of books: the immense privilege of enriching another's life


These pages today depart from almost all the customary patterns and purposes they have followed for going-on a year now. There are no reviews, there is no argumentative provocation. Even our weekly offering of tiny bookish entertainments and outrages that internally we call the "toy box" is swept away, except, of course, for the sacrosanct score cards.

Instead, there is an outpouring of gift-book choices by a delightful variety of people, many of whom are or should be familiar to readers of these pages. I hope you find them provocative - and perhaps useful.

The questions these people were asked are prominently displayed above. I set the terms of the puzzle after consulting colleagues and friends, with the thought that almost every holiday gift list I can remember seeing, of books or otherwise, seemed either of very limited usefulness or predictable and thus boring.

My hope was that these answers would be otherwise, that taken as a whole they would be surprising, exciting and useful. I am delighted by the result. I hope you feel the same way.

One of the better general rules of managing anything is that you should never ask anyone to do anything that, if you are able, you are not willing to do yourself. So, before reading the other lists, I made some choices of my own.

Modest suggestions

Happily recognizing that the others are more interesting than mine, here they are:

"A River Runs Through It," by Norman Maclean - to an imaginative friend with a ranging mind and enormous appetite for reading, but who I have learned has never read it and who knows and cares little or nothing about the outdoors. Though it has been stamped with a fly fishing trademark (especially through a lovely movie that did not comprehend the book), it is a novella of such enormous heart, such flawless structure, such courage of recognition that I am conscious of living with it more than many books.

To a judge, a teacher and a writer with immense experience dealing with healthy children as well as juvenile offenders, "The Uses of Enchantment," by Bruno Bettelheim. Because I know of no book that, for me at least, more intelligently and insightfully leads one toward comprehending the intermingling of mind, heart and stories in the development of personal equanimity. It brilliantly opens windows to the meaning of stories, to the role of imagination. Without being preachy, it brings a level of rationality to the human spirit that is both startling and enduringly instructive.

To a very smart and deeply ethical young friend now just beginning a life in government service: "Confederacy of Dunces," by John. K. Toole, a brilliant novel, of course, but also a brilliant demonstration of the genius of individual lone courage and the explosive randomness of genius. It is an immense antidote to that poisoning academic disease that at its most virulent leads one toward suspecting that human behavior and motives are understandable and thus controllable.

On to strangers:

To Sen. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives and arguably the most prominent still-serving conservator of the 1950s and 1960s constituent-coalition Democratic Party: "Shelley's Heart," by Charles McCarry. A splendidly engaging political entertainment, not a book of deep wisdom or of political theory, but as good and easy an explication that I know of why the old Democratic coalition has no future.

L And, so no ideologue is abandoned without an offered prayer:

For Newt Gingrich, Georgia congressman and speaker of the House of Representatives, "Reason to Believe," by Mario Cuomo. This is the most irresistibly heartfelt contemporary explication of the reason that the motivations and assumptions of the old Democratic coalition remain alive in America; a powerful argument that without those values the country would be in peril of becoming terrifyingly inhumane, would be in deep spiritual trouble.

Seeking purposes

What is the purpose of gifts - and of books? Obviously, there are dozens of answers to either question. But for myself, I think that the best presents, books or not, do something to lift and to enrich - if that is not too ponderous a term - the life of the receiver.

As for books, there are a thousand definable usefulnesses, but zTC the one that I think rises above all others is this: A book, more powerfully and directly than any other experience, can change for all time the consciousness of the reader.

The little game of gifts for prominent strangers assumes a potential for exercising influence. Fair game. But that other question involves people who are close, in heart and mind, and is much more serious and difficult.

It's not for me to tell my friends, especially those closest to me, how or what to think. There is no act less loving than manipulation. The most important role we play in the lives of those we love is to free them.

Ideas are the swords of freedom. Books are the armory of ideas.


An end note: We have not included publishers and other data that are conventional to these pages with the book citations, for sake of space and the fact that many of the books exist in multiple editions. Anyone who is of a mind to seek one or more of them should first ask any competent bookseller to check current status through their own reference data, and if that fails, to seek from any major public library's electronic "card catalog" a citation that will make a special order possible from a book shop.

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