Don't Ask, Don't Dwell: The One, Big Rule for Giving a Book as a Gift

Give it, and then hush.

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My grandmother Adele loved culture and was generous with its gifts. She took me to museums, restaurants, ballets. She showered me with trinkets from her travels around the world. But I can only remember her giving me one book—a book that, to this day, I have not read.

When I was a child, she presented me with her own favorite childhood volume: Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates. Thick enough to mean a substantial story with chapters, the volume had hard, shiny gray covers with the title embossed in blue letters on the spine. The creamy pages had ragged edges. Inside were old-fashioned pen and ink illustrations depicting Hans, his friends, and whatever it was they did.

My grandmother was thrilled to share this book with me. She even adorned the title page with her proud script. It was the first book inscription I ever received, a rite of passage all its own. Then she waited.

I tried to read it. I adored reading, and would dive into a new batch of books from the library all at once. But something about Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates just wouldn't let me in. The story was set in Holland, a long time ago. It felt dull and alien—even though I was a fan of classics of other times and places like Little House on the Prairie and All of a Kind Family. With Hans Brinker, I simply read the first pages over and over. I could not progress. My brother even showed solidarity by giving it a try. He couldn't get into it, either.

Standing on a bookshelf in our living room among favorites like The Phantom Tollbooth, Harriet the Spy, To Build A Fire—and of course the complete works of Judy Blume—the book was like a crack in the sidewalk. Something to avoid. It rebuked me for not being interested, for not trying hard enough, for disappointing my grandmother.

The book started to blend in, almost forgotten, until Adele inquired. Had I read it? Did I like it? Always determined, she wanted to know the answer. I would make some kind of excuse, feel bad, and open it again, hoping for a new reaction. The book weighed on me. After all, I was the kind of kid who was plagued by the empty pages of a child's diary, another gift. (Ambivalent writer even then.) Duty drove me to record at least a few events of my elementary-school days, but not most—a failure eclipsed only by my inattention to boring Hans.

Years passed and finally Adele and I both accepted that I would never read Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates. Eventually I cleared the book from the shelf. The Hans Brinker experience led me to formulate a rule that I've lived by ever since: Do not inquire about a book given as a gift. Don't ask, despite your desire to discuss it, to feel validated, to grow closer. The desire for such connection is what imbues book-giving with special meaning—and increases the recipient's capacity to be a letdown.

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Karen Loew is a writer and editor in New York, currently at work on Alone in the Valley, a nonfiction book about civic life in small-town Virginia and its implications for national politics.

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