When asked for gift ideas I have only one response: books. This irks friends and relatives who believe a gift embodying self-improvement, like a new shirt or wallet, is what I really need though I’m too unimproved to appreciate it. This year I’ve asked for the usual hodgepodge of books for Christmas – Janet Lewis, Thomas Traherne, Étienne Gilson, Moore Moran – and I’m confident most will magically appear beneath the tree Saturday morning. Canadian novelist Robertson Davies wrote in the New York Times in 1991 (“Christmas Books” is collected in The Merry Heart, 1996):
“There are many people – happy people, it usually appears – whose thoughts at Christmas always turn to books. The notion of a Christmas tree with no books under it is repugnant and unnatural to them.”
On Sunday, I found myself in a minor moral dilemma. My seven-year-old, no mean reader, has been nagging my wife to take him to the store so he can buy me a book for Christmas, and my wife found a lucrative coupon good at the chain-bookstore near our house. I couldn’t name a title off the top of my head so we agreed to go as a family. I would browse and identify a title, and together she and David would buy it while my head was turned.
For half an hour I searched and found nothing. I read more books in six months than most Americans read in a lifetime, but the cupboard was bare. I even looked for paperbacks of old favorites missing from my shelves, but turned up nothing. For David the syllogism was self-evident: Dad reads a lot. Dad is in a bookstore. Ergo, Dad will find a book to read. I hated to disappoint him. I apologized and he forgave me, holding three books he wanted against his chest. More importantly, my wife forgave me. I used the coupon, dated to expire Sunday, to buy her a book she wanted for Christmas, a denouement less Dickensian than worthy of O. Henry.
In another essay, “A Rake at Reading,” Davies writes:
“Logan Pearsall Smith was wrong: reading is not a substitute for life, because it is indivisible from life. Indeed, it is a reflection of the spirit of the reader, and I am truly convinced that we who are committed readers may appear to choose our books, but in an equally true sense our books choose us.”