The gift of writing
What is the most important gifted book you have ever received?
That’s the question that greets the visitor to Gifts and Books, an inspired and multi-dimensional exhibition curated by Nicholas Perkins and running at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries until 29 October.
The responses from readers, in a collection of videos and testimonies at the entrance of the show, are varied and surprisingly revealing about the many emotions, dynamics and understandings involved in giving and receiving books: ranging from the intimate and personal, to the social, spiritual and global.
For Navneet, Huruki Murukami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which she received from a friend in the US, gave her much more than she expected. The book was not only ‘a nice companion’ which got her back into reading during the isolation of Covid-19. It also ‘gave me an insight into my friend, into why we were friends in the first place,’ she says. ‘We were connected through this book. I was reading not only the author’s words, but the soul of my friend was in there too.’
Or, in words attributed to 16th-century metaphysical poet George Herbert, ‘Gifts speak the giver.’
For another reader, Czeslaw, Slaves in Paradise by Leokadia Majewicz, given to him by his sister, enabled him to connect with his Polish mother’s life and his own heritage. The book is about a girl who is transported to a Siberian labour camp in Stalin’s Soviet Union. ‘This is what happened to my mother. She didn’t talk about it much when she was alive, but this one gave me an insight into her history, which was very similar,’ he says.
As a seven-year-old child, Laura was devastated when her grandmother moved away. But she was left a present, Roald Dahl’s The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me. ‘It was,’ she says, ‘a piece of love. It ends with a poem about missing people. And a line that says: “No book ever ends when it’s full of your friends.” That line became one of the most important phrases for me growing up and is one of the reasons I ended up loving reading.’
Not just a technology
The artefacts on show – many from Oxford University’s museum collections – reveal stories of writing and giving from across the world, centuries and genres, ranging from an ancient Sumerian stone tablet to a Philip Pullman manuscript.
Francesca Stavrakopoulo, professor of Hebrew bible and ancient religion at the University of Exeter, explains: ‘Writing wasn’t simply an ancient technology of communication, but a material manifestation of the social bond between deity and humans. The gift of writing itself played a really important role in that relationship. … Writing can be seen as one of civilization’s essences or qualities known as mes, given to humans by the gods themselves.’
Some of the books on show could be described as world-changing in their ability to influence social attitudes. Take The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, published in 1789, which played a key role in the abolitionist movement. It’s an autobiography in which Equiano relates his early life in what is now southern Nigeria, where he was kidnapped into slavery before enduring the horrendous ‘middle passage’ to the Caribbean, attempting to become free through literacy and Bible study, arriving in England and eventually obtaining freedom.
In her accompanying commentary, Brenda Stevenson, Hilary Rodham Clinton professor of women’s history at Oxford, says that Equiano ‘produces this book as a gift to those people who are still enslaved, those people who would still be transported, from Africa to the Americas, as a gift that will help them gain their freedom, perhaps, but also that will end this slave trade’.
The Women’s Suffrage Cookbook by Mrs Aubrey Dowson also has a clear activist – and fundraising – purpose. Though just how effective a ‘cure for jaundice’ was drinking a glassful of white wine mixed with squeezed lemons ‘every morning’ is open to question.
A curious omission in an otherwise admirably wide-ranging exhibition is the absence of ‘banned’ books, which can be particularly poignant gifts. For example, lesbian and gay literature has faced continuing censorship, but is exchanged, treasured, and read even where it is most forbidden and reviled.
It could be argued that poet and children’s author Patience Agbabi hints at such a situation when she speaks of gifts that ‘must be kept secret’ by ‘a small dysfunctional minority’. She’s talking about the ‘leaplings’ in her Leap Cycle series – children born on the 29 February who are endowed with unconventional characteristics and powers.
Change yourself – and the world
Perhaps the quintessential ‘gift book’ is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which he wanted published not in the usual Dickensian pamphlet form but as a beautiful physical book to be given as a Christmas present. But, as Dickens expert Ushashi Dasgupta comments: ‘A book to Dickens was also a challenge, an appeal to be as sympathetic to real people as you were to imaginary characters. To change both yourself and the world around you. In other words, Dickens wanted his readers to do something with the real and metaphorical gifts that they had received.’
Writing that reaches into the hearts and minds of readers, that shares ideas and visions of the change we want to see and to be, is also central to New Internationalist’s raison d’être. A monthly gift will help get the magazine out to schools, campaign groups and activists, to reach a new generation of readers – and maybe future writers and agitators too. Are you interested? If so, head to newint.org/give or email [email protected] if you have any questions.
Gifts and Books is at the Bodleian’s Weston Library until 29 October.
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