Give it, and then hush.
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.
The guilt dynamic is basically the same as for all gifts, though. If the giver doesn't have the pleasure of seeing or hearing about the gift being enjoyed, and asks whether it is, then the recipient—unless she can truthfully say "yes"—either has to admit to not liking the present, or else lie on the spot. Neither is pleasant. So, no noodging.
The rule can be hard to follow. A while back I gave a book that I cherish á la Adele's Brinker to a young relative. I admonished myself to commend my beloved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and then stand back. Indeed, the response was silence. Then there was the friend who, I was sure, actually needed the virtuoso media critique Within the Context of No Context. But he barely opened the copy I gave him. We're so close that I couldn't help a bit of "didn't you...?"—then re-embraced the Rule. And now that the world of readers includes a little niece and nephew, my adherence is challenged anew. There's plenty of favorite reading that could be pressed on them.
Those inspired to live by the "don't ask" approach to book-giving would do well to embrace a corollary: Do tell, if you like a book that was a present. Make it a point to say so. Especially if the giver does you the favor of pretending to have forgotten. Remembering to bring it up lends cosmic equilibrium to the Rule.
Looking back at Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates today, a familiar aversion washes over me. Published in 1865 by Mary Mapes Dodge, the story still resides in the pantheon of children's classics. Disney even saw fit to make a movie version a century later. Apparently my reaction is not everyone's. I don't know what made the text so uninviting. I just didn't like it.
I only remember giving my grandmother Adele one book, too. She was always a reader, though she became voracious in her later years as my grandfather's health declined and she craved escape. For her birthday, I thought a fine novel would be a fitting present.
It was the late '90s, when Francisco Goldman published The Ordinary Seaman to good reviews. This novel had a mix of characteristics Adele would appreciate: it was new and fresh to her, the critics approved, and it seemed highbrow and worldly.
But apparently my choice also missed the mark. Life was tougher, and she no longer had the patience for literary novels.
I didn't ask after the book. I didn't have to. Direct as ever, Adele brought it up one day. "I'm sorry," she said. "I just couldn't get into it."
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