For a period of years in the mid 1960’s, my cousin Cora gave me one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's “Little House” books for my birthday every year. The gift was especially meaningful since Cora was the cousin I most admired - she was about 15 years older than I, and she had gone to college, something no one else in the family had done. I knew next to nothing about college, except that my parents regularly alluded to the fact that I would someday attend as well. Because I loved school, and college was School with a Capitol S, I looked forward to going with eager anticipation. Cora was the only one in the family who gave me books as gifts, and in my mind this conferred a special connection between us. We were both readers, and that set us apart from the rest of the family.
Of course I loved reading the Little House books, and would re-read the year’s book several times before my birthday rolled around again. There was no question of “jumping ahead” in the series and taking out the next one from the library. For that entire year I lived with whatever adventures the Ingalls' family were undertaking as I waited for the next installment to arrive in early March.
Books were my preferred friends and companions in those days. I was a quiet only child, growing up in a suburban Catholic neighborhood, surrounded my families of five, six, seven, children. Although I enjoyed playing with other children, I was happiest curled up somewhere with a book. I felt connected to the characters in books the way I didn’t always feel connected to the living, breathing children in my neighborhood or classroom. That’s the wonderful thing about books - they connect us to people and experiences and worlds we might never otherwise consider. They invite us to question and explore, they give solace and support.
At least they always have for me.
I still have all those Little House books, the hardcover editions, on a special shelf downstairs. My son wasn’t particularly interested in them, which isn’t surprising. He loved mysteries and ghost stories and, later, satire and Star Trek. I kept his favorite books from infancy through childhood, and parcel them out to my grandson at appropriate times. I don’t have any illusions that my grandson will care about Laura and Mary Ingalls either, so I suspect those books will stay with me until someone packs up my final effects.
People rarely buy me books anymore, which I completely understand. Even though books are my favorite gift (aside from jewelry) how would anyone know what I’ve read and what I haven’t? My mother often gives me Barnes and Noble gift cards which are a fine substitute, and I judiciously hoard them to use on titles I know I want to maintain in my permanent library.
One of the most meaningful bookish gifts I ever received was from my husband, many years ago. We were in our early 30’s at the time, he was working long, hard hours and I was finishing up my college (I did go, but in fits and spurts over a period of 10 years). The book was The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath; this purchase was touching evidence that despite his busyness and preoccupation with his own work, he had paid attention to my interests of the time.
I’ve kept that book as well, even though I never read the poems anymore.
All this to say, tomorrow is my birthday, and there are a couple of books I’m coveting for myself this year. One is A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler’s latest (and she says her Last) novel. The other is Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, which many people have said moved them to tears. I am thinking of starting my own birthday book buying tradition, taking myself to the bookstore tomorrow and purchasing a gift from me to me.
I’m also inviting you to my bookish birthday celebration and giving away one copy of my own book, Life In General. Enter to win by leaving a comment here - tell me about your favorite bookish gift, or simply say “I’m in.” A winner will be chosen by random drawing on Sunday, March 15.
And whatever you’re reading this Sunday, may it connect you with satisfying thoughts, ideas, and emotions.