Wednesday, December 16, 2015

For the love of books

Barbara here. Chanukah is over (except for the Fradkins, who operate in our own weird universe and will celebrate it together on December 30) but there are still nine days before Christmas, so it's time to talk about the incredible gift of books.

I grew up surrounded by books. My father was a philosophy professor at McGill and an incurable book addict. Being a philosopher, he was inclined to be oblivious to the exigencies of daily life, and so even when the family budget could barely afford oatmeal, he bought books. Not as articles of decor or status to be displayed by the fireplace, but for the richness they contained. Knowledge about the origins of the universe, tales of adventure and peril, insight into the lives of great historical figures...

He was in love with knowledge, as the word philosophy suggests. Our house had bookcases everywhere, and when he ran out of room, he built another one. Usually somewhat rickety and rustic, because he was less handy with a hammer than he was with a pen. His study was lined on all four walls with books, and there was even a bookcase in his clothes cupboard. The minute you walked in the front door, you ran into a wall of books lining the front hall.

As a child, I loved to peruse these shelves, pulling out books at random and leafing through them to see what captured my interest. The great Russian novelists, Marcel Proulx, Faulkner, Shakespeare, Toynbee, Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell... I could be thrilled, intrigued, informed, entertained, sometimes bored, but there was always enough discovery at my fingertips to keep me coming back. I'm not sure how much I got out of Solzhenitzyn at the age of ten, but the images of the gulag have stuck with me to this day.

Both my parents were committed to books, to words and storytelling. My father told us bedtime stories about his childhood in Newfoundland, and my mother read my sister and me novels that were above our own reading level. The whole Anne of Green Gables series became an ongoing nightly drama that spanned months. On Sunday evenings, I recall we had a poetry hour in which each of us picked a poem from the poetry collections in the house, recited it, and talked about it. I recall loving the musical sound of the words tumbling through the air, and the laughter at some of the sillier poems.

This love of books has carried into our adult lives. I'm happy that after years of trying to select presents for our extended family get-together, we have settled on a book exchange. Each of us buys a book, wraps it without naming a recipient, and puts it under the tree. When we gather to unwrap the presents, each of us in turn selects a book. Others are free to steal it or trade theirs for it instead of selecting a new one, and in this fashion, everyone gets a book that they find intriguing, even if outside their normal reading habit. It fills the gift opening time with laughter, exclamations, and even groans.

All this for roughly $20 a person.

In this frantic lead-up to Christmas, as each of us struggles to figure out what to buy and how to afford it, think of books! They are so much more than an app on a tablet or a little block of paper. They are an invitation into a new world, of fantasy, mystery, history, or scientific discovery... They provoke thought and discussion, enrich the soul as well as the brain, and stimulate the powers of concentration and imagination far more than TV and video games can never do. And they don't break the budget. They are by far the best educational aide you can provide for your children. A lifelong habit of reading books is a life-long habit in learning. And thinking.

Books don't break, don't grow obsolete, don't invoke envy in the schoolyard, and don't clutter up the landfills. If you have too many books (how can you have too many books!), donate them to the local library, thrift store, women's shelter, or fundraising book exchange. It's a gift that punches well above its weight. And cost.

You gotta love it.


Vicki Delany said...

Great article! I'll second that. We're having a similar book gift exchange at my book club on Friday.

Sybil Johnson said...

What a great tradition.

Patricia Filteau said...

Enjoyed reading about the family influences and traditions that contributed and continue to do so in your life as a reader, and as a writer.
For many years each of my children and I wrote short stories to give as gifts to one another. We would read one on Christmas Eve, one or two on Christmas Day and another on Boxing Day until we got through them all. It was great fun. I miss it.