The gift of provocation

In all your life, what was the best book you ever received as a present and who gave it to you?; Why do you think it was chosen?

Lisa Schwarzbaum


Film critic for Entertainment Weekly.

"The collected poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay." I was 14 years old in the Sixties, I favored black leotards and a gloomy demeanor, and I wrote of my private suburban agonies (which could all be solved, I thought, if I lived in Greenwich Village) with a leaky Rapidograph pen in an oversized journal. With this fat volume of Millay's lovely bohemian folderol, my mother was able to suggest, delicately, that if I was going to mope, I might as well try to make art out of my precious, hoarded miseries - a moment of revelation for any young writer.


Victoria Sorota

An Episcopal priest and vicar of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Baltimore, she holds a doctorate in music as well as a master of divinity degree. An organist and university music teacher before ordination, she has written widely about creativity, theology and music.

When I was 11, I was given a large, colorful book titled "The Wonderful World of Music," by Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst (Garden City N.Y.: Garden City Books, 1958). The inscription to me by Bette, a woman who had lived with our family for a brief time, reads: "May you always love and enjoy music as you do now." I adored this book. It opened a whole new world to me through fascinating historical illustrations, manuscripts (including a facsimile of Bach's own musical notation), modern art, photographs of instruments, cathedrals, concert halls, performers and composers, and an easily understood introduction to the materials of music. What a magnificent Christmas present Bette gave me. She knew me better than I knew myself. Years later I would attend Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Glenn McNatt

Sun arts columnist, was previously an editorial writer for 10 years at The Sun and began his career as a college English teacher.

The best book I ever got was "The Little Engine That Could," from my parents, who wanted to teach me I could do anything I wanted if I was wiling to work hard.

Joan Mellen

Author of 13 books, including "Privilege: The Enigma of Sasha Bruce," a biography of David Bruce's youngest daughter. Her most recent book is "Hellman and Hammett," a dual biography.


It came from my cousin Seth, just released from the Navy after World War II. My parents had never thought of buying me a book. So it was also my first. I was 5 years old and the book was "Anne of Green Gables." The story of a little girl who was unhappy and unappreciated, and then appreciated and cherished. It provided with the persistent fantasy of my life.

Donna Rifkind

Writes for the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the New Criterion, for which she used to be assistant managing editor.

The best book ever given to me as a gift was "A Child's History of the World," written in 1924 by V.M. Hillyer, the headmaster of a patrician boys' school. I received the book from my father, who had himself been entranced by it when he was a boy. He remembered it for the remarkable way it made the history of Western civilization come alive in a child's imagination, without condescension or a trace of stuffiness. The book is out of print and mostly forgotten now. But we've managed to track down a few copies in used bookstores to share with my two young sons.

Terry Teachout

The music critic of Commentary, writes the "Front Row Center" column for Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress. He is at work on "H. L. Mencken: A Life."


Twenty-nine years ago, my father's half-brother gave me Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Complete Sherlock Holmes" (Doubleday) as a Christmas present, for the perfectly logical reason that I'd told him in no uncertain terms that nothing would please me more. I must have been a wise child, for I still own that same fat volume, somewhat battered and minus the dust jacket but otherwise in perfectly readable condition, and it now reposes on a bookshelf an arm's length away from the desk at which I am writing these words, easily available for instant relaxation after a hard day's work.

Sujata Massey

Author of "The Salaryman's Wife" and the forthcoming "Zen Attitude."

"Letters Home," by Sylvia Plath, given to me at age 16 by my mother. My mother had admired Sylvia Plath's poetry and was trying to pass on the literary torch. However, these letters describing a young woman's academic awakening at Smith College were so alluring that I decided to leave home in Minnesota for college in the East. I never moved back - although I still write letters to my mother.

William K. Marimow

Managing editor of The Sun, was a reporter for 15 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. His work has earned him two Pulitzer Prizes.


When I was an editor in the Philadelphia suburbs in 1987, Michael Bamberger, our high school sports reporter, gave me a first edition of "Country Editor," by Henry Beetle Hough. I think Michael chose it for me because Hough described the triumphs and travails of being a newspaper editor. At that time, I was in my first year of editing and desperately needed all the guidance and wisdom I could get.

Jacqueline Thomas

Editorial page editor at The Sun and former Washington bureau chief of the Detroit News.

Without a doubt, the best book I've received as a present is an inscribed copy of Langston Hughes' "Shakespeare in Harlem," given to me by my grandparents, who had once had Hughes as a houseguest. It was a gift designed - successfully - to whet the appetite of a young teen-ager for literature by African- Americans.

Sheri Parks

Associate dean of undergraduate studies and a professor in American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is co-host of "Mind Over Media," on WJHU-FM.


I wanted a "Random House Unabridged Dictionary" a few years ago. I asked my husband and a few other family members. Everyone thought I was joking, so I didn't receive it, but I really wanted it.

John Waters

Filmmaker, author and chronicler of Baltimore, he is currently filming "Pecker"; his book "Director's Cut" has just been published.

Dennis Dermody, a lifelong friend who lives in New York and is the film critic for Paper Magazine, gave me for Christmas one year a "Human Behavior" book titled "Obese Humans and Rats" by Stanley Schachter and Judith Rodin. I've still never read it, but I display it face-out on my shelf marveling that there really is such a book and hoping that my guests will find it inspirational.

Jon Morgan

Writes about sports business for The Sun and is the author of "Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the New NFL."


My mother gave me the paperback version of Theodore White's "In Search of History" when I was in high school, pondering career choices. His descriptions of interviewing Mao Tse-Tung in a cave in rural China, and discussing Camelot with Jackie Kennedy within days of JFK's assassination, settled it. Journalism. I think that's what she had in mind.

Arthur Hirsch

Staff writer for The Sun, has worked for the Cape Cod Times and the Standard-Times in Massachusetts, and the Union Leader in New Hampshire.

Because I was asked for gift suggestions, the book was exactly what I had in mind: "Not Exactly What I Had in Mind," Roy Blount Jr.'s collection of humor pieces, in which men make nuclear weapons in a wretched attempt to create something nearly so powerful as women's lingerie, in which homage is paid to John Wayne and Erma Bombeck and the names of cabdrivers. I frequently return to the book, enjoying the company of a man who relishes a good laugh and graceful language.

Carla Hayden

Director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.


Two books by Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Lyrics of Lowly Life" and "Lyrics of the Hearthside" first editions (1899), given to me by an old family friend that started my private book collection of works by African- American authors and began my interest in rare books, too..

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Lieutenant governor of the state of Maryland.

When I was 10, my aunt Jackie Kennedy gave me two Nancy Drew mystery books. She knew I'd be an independent, crime-fighting, problem-solving woman when I grew up.

Donna Crivello

L Owner of Donna's coffee bars and a former editor at The Sun.


At least 10 years ago, I was given "The Art of Eating" by M.F.K. Fisher, by my friend and co-worker at The Baltimore Sun, Ann Feild. We both shared (and still do) a love of food and of wonderfully written remembrances about food and eating. Written 60 years ago, it is timeless and memorable, and it is a book that I have given as a gift many times.

Victoria Brownworth

A writers on lesbian and gay culture for more than 20 years, she is contributing editor of LBR and Curve magazines. She is co-author of the recently published book "Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors."

In a lifetime of reading and receiving (and of course writing) important, serious, vital books, fiction and nonfiction alike, the most influential book I was ever given was a pulp paperback called "Beebo Brinker," by Ann Bannon. A surreptitious and mildly salacious gift snuck into my locker by an admirer at my all-girls high school, this tale of young lesbian lovers in Greenwich village was the proverbial prelude to a kiss. More than a learner's manual and a damned good read.

Marc Steiner

Host of a radio show, which airs Monday-Friday on WJHU-FM from noon until 2 p.m.


There were many, but the earliest I recall was my Uncle Pip in England sending me a copy of the original Lord Baden-Powell's "Boy Scout Handbook" when I was 10 years old. It opened my eyes to the love of the outdoors, world brotherhood and our American Indian heritage. It led to the skills to survive and enjoy DTC a lifetime wandering in the wilderness, to my joining at 11 an all-black boy scout troop in a Baptist Church on the east side in segregated Baltimore and opened my life to the history, life and lore of our native ancestors. Unintended consequences, I am sure.

Kia Corthron

A Baltimore playwright, her newest play, "Splash Hatch on the E Going Down," can be seen at Center Stage.

Miss Lela Mae McIntyre - retired English teacher from Carver High, the segregated black school my mother attended in Cumberland - once gave mom a big box of old books for my sister and me, who were about 10 and 11. The old hardbacks, "Pollyanna," Nancy Drew, "The Happy Hollisters," sometimes magical, sometimes offensive (racism, sexism) to my early '70s sensibilities, remain with me to this day as the diverse offerings of that surprise cardboard treasure chest.

Rob Hiaasen

Features writer for The Sun


Two years ago, my wife, Maria, gave me an annotated version of E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web." The book allows me to peek into the mind of my favorite writer, as he wrote, re-wrote, thought, re-thought one of my favorite books.

Pub Date: 12/14/97