Five Gift Books to Treasure

I've always been emotional about my books (well, if truth be told, about most things). Being inordinately attached to some of the books makes it difficult to think about paring my collection, but the books I will never weed from my shelves include several that I've been given as gifts over the years. Perhaps they pack an emotional punch because I associate them with certain friends who tried to match me to a particular book, who knew me well enough to know what I might like to have and to hold. Maybe I value these books because they're old and were given to me mostly when I was young. Or maybe these gifts speak to remembrances of things past. Or possibly it's that they're held all the dearer because friends and family stopped giving me books long ago, thinking that, as a constant reader, I'd already read this or that one or would surely already have it.

Whatever the reason, here are five books I was given that I'll always keep. I've listed them here in the order in which they were received; they could never be ranked in a best-to-least order. They're all equally treasured.

Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
Published originally in 1955, this book was given to me by the lovely Mrs. Browne from my Ohio hometown about 10 years later, after I'd spent two summers babysitting (there were no nannies then) her three young boys (my Browne boys, I called them). We went to the New Jersey shore where they'd rented a house, and the boys and I explored the beach each day, picking up shells and watching little living creatures scuttle through the sand. As a teenager, I understood only some of the book the first time I read it; real relationships were all ahead of me. But I knew that I would always go down to the sea again and that I'd re-read this book often.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language.
I got this behemoth of a word book as an award just two years after it was first published in 1966, and I loved it from the beginning. More than a dictionary (and unabridged at that), it served me well for years as a reference book of the first order. It had everything between its covers: all the words I could possibly want, an atlas, tables of weights and measures, foreign language lists in the back. I loved its size and heft, its authority, its multiple uses (when my kids were growing up, it was often slipped in under one or the other to help them sit up at the kitchen table). With the advent of the Internet, this treasure trove has fallen into disuse, but its pages still press the occasional petal and leaf and hold many yellowed slips of Queen Anne's lace from forgotten fields.

Complete Poems, 1913-1962, by E.E. Cummings.
I have a first American edition, published in 1972, and given to me not long after. None of us had any money in the early 1970s, but a friend somehow managed to come up with whatever the hardcover cost, and I've loved this book ever since, although I open it with much less regularity these days. I remember being pulled in by line after line. The poems spoke to me at the time in a way well nigh impossible now, although they still create echoes in my memory. "You shall above all things be glad and young/ For if you're young, whatever life you wear// it will become you. . . ." And we were all glad and young and becoming the lives we wore.

The title page of this beauty of a book is missing, so I know nothing of its origins. My best childhood friend, who remains my dear friend more than a half-century later, gave me this after buying it at one of the bookstalls when we first went to London together in the 1970s. The bookplate pasted on the beautifully marbled front endpaper reads: "Gosports and Alverstoke Secondary School - Prize for Art, awarded to Leonard Smith of Form IV, July 1909" and is signed by Leslie C. Keating, Head Master. This red leather-bound gem is full of illustrations, including a portrait of Shakespeare and many lovely colored illustrations of scenes from the plays. All of the plays are here in these 1300-plus pages, along with several poems, an index to the characters in the dramatic works, and a helpful glossary (with some of what became many of my favorite words to try to use in a sentence: childing: unseasonably pregnant; gallymawfry: a medley; umbered: discovered by gleam of fire). Having this book on my shelves always makes me feel a little more learned, as if I could somehow get all that's in Shakespeare by osmosis. It also makes me feel loved.

Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.
Twenty-five years ago, two people with whom I worked gave me the most valuable book I have: a first edition (1854, from the London publishers Bradbury & Evans) of a novel by one of my favorite authors. And this one, too, is a beauty: gold-edged pages, incredible marbling on the endpapers, all protected in its own slipcase. At the time, I was starting off on another path, and this was to wish me well. They'd chosen this particular book because I'd once used a marvelous quote from the first paragraph of Chapter I: "Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life." I still keep this treasure in its slipcase in the original box tied with a grosgrain ribbon that reminds me of all that goes into a gift.

What are some titles of books you were happy to be on the receiving end of?

-- Evelyn Small

By Christian Pelusi |  August 28, 2008; 8:18 AM ET Evelyn Small
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My brother gives me books for pretty much every birthday and Hanukkah. He hasn't given me valuable first editions or antiques like what you've mentioned above, and I have not yet read most of them (the backlog is out of control). But it's clear my brother puts a lot of thought into what he gives me. So, for instance, he has given me Tennessee Williams' "Notebooks," Richard Schickel's biography of Elia Kazan, a Beatles coffee table book, knowing that I'm fans of all these people. I try to return the favor to him on his birthdays and Hanukkah.

Posted by: KLeewrite | August 28, 2008 9:28 AM

Any old edition of Jane Austin, or any old edition of Louisa May Alcott. The Alcotts in particular are nice to get when the gift is one of the more obscure books, like Eight Cousins, or Rose in Bloom.

Posted by: babsy1 | August 28, 2008 1:41 PM

I always give books as gifts. I know and love them, and love to share them. "Under the Tuscan Sun" was a perfect present - sunny escapism at its best!

Posted by: Gottawrite Girl | August 28, 2008 1:46 PM

I certainly do not disagree with the choices, but would like to add one more: The Holy Bible.

Posted by: luvmynaturalself | August 28, 2008 11:45 PM

Rilke's "Neue Gedichte." It's a paperback, but I adore the book so much that it is getting beat up. I really must try to get a hardcover somewhere, though that will likely be difficult around here. Wie hab ich daB gefuhlt, was Abschied heiBt? They just keep getting better as I get older.

I have a Collected Works of T.S. Elliot from a very dear college friend also - a gift upon graduating. She inscribed it in the inside "if you ever figure out Sweeney Among the Nightingales, call me." We both loved Elliot, but neither of us could figure that one out at all. Of course, once I passed 30, it was pretty straightforward. I wish I had her number now.

Posted by: bad mommy | August 29, 2008 5:25 AM

The Drifters by James Michener -- gave out 10 copies for Christmas the year I worked at the book store. Makes me want to drop everything and go to Europe. Someday, I will make it to Torremolinos.

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. Not just for the sci-fi geeks on your list, this is pure political science at its best, told in a riveting, patriotic, poetic fashion. I learned more from this book than I did in the MA program at GWU. Stole this one from my best friend and then bought her a new copy.

Good Omens by Neil Gaimen & Terry Pratchett. The book that keeps on giving, I've borrowed it, been presented it, lent it out, and everytime I read it, I pick up some new reference I didn't get last time. It's a dear (and dog-eared!) friend in itself.

Posted by: NC2 | August 29, 2008 8:49 AM

I always give Jim Trelease's "The Read Aloud Handbook" at every baby shower. A must for new parents. And I just got "The Last Lecture" from my parents. Seems like that would be a good gift book.

I completely agree with babsy about Jane Austen and Louisa Alcott books.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | August 29, 2008 9:11 AM

What's unique for me about several of the gift books I have on my shelves is that they contain on their flyleaves the only handwriting I have of my grandmothers and grandfather. Birthday and Christmas wishes from slowly aging hands.

Posted by: posisitvepcr | August 29, 2008 9:27 AM

I love receiving gift books I wouldn't normally buy on my own. A friend of mine who was teaching literature in London gave me a beautiful edition of Hugh Kenner's "The Pound Era" with the inscription "On a cold night, if you ever want to curl up by the fire with some literary criticism, this is the book for you." He was entirely correct -- sentence by sentence, the writing is better than most novels, as is the character development and the insights. A wonderful way to transport oneself to a different time and place.

Posted by: mark tarallo | August 30, 2008 6:03 PM

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