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

Give it, and then hush.

banner_books giving.jpg
AP Images

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.

Presented by

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.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

Just In