Christmas: Why a book is the most satisfying present you'll find under the tree

Writer Michael Gorra says books are the only gifts that can still surprise you long after you've ripped off the wrapping paper.

Richard Clement/Reuters
Wrapping paper is sold at at a Wal-Mart store in Alexandria, Virginia.

Welcome, book lovers, to Christmas Day, 2013. Here’s hoping that you find at least one special volume under the tree.

Because, at a certain point in your life, as scholar Michael Gorra has pointed out, books are about the only present that can carry the Christmas magic.

Here’s Gorra:

“The Christmas tree holds few surprises for those past childhood. You recognize the wrapped shapes of shirtboxes and wine bottles, and wonder only about the color; the little envelopes contain cards from stores that you are already known to like. Books too – the shape and weight are the most giving of giveaways, and however much their contents may thrill, the names on their covers are already known in advance.”

Why are book lovers rarely surprised by the titles they unwrap on Christmas? Because, as Gorra explains it, the books given as gifts are often the ones that the recipient has requested. It’s the only way to ensure that a bibliophile doesn’t already have the book on his shelf.

But even if we get a volume as a Christmas present that was on our wish list, the book can still surprise us, of course, once we start reading it. The promise of surprise is the only real reason, of course, to read in the first place.

Which is why, back in 1982, when Gorra’s mother gave him a package containing just the book he had asked her to get, Gorra was still delighted. The book was “Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches,” the second title from a new publisher called The Library of America.

About the LOA, you probably already know. Now three decades old, the nonprofit publisher has been producing definitive volumes from the classic canon of American literature – everything from transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson to horror writer Shirley Jackson. With their library-quality paper, durable green covers, exquisitely stitched bindings and signature, black-and-white dust jackets, as sensibly practical as a Pilgrim’s smock, the LOA books treat literature as an occasion.

Little wonder, then, that Gorra fell in love with his first Library of America title and has been collecting them ever since.

The books have helped shape Gorra’s distinguished academic and literary career. He’s the Augusta Jordan Professor of English at Smith College and his recent book, “Portrait of A Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece,” was a finalist in 2012 for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.”

Last year, as a tribute to the LOA on its landmark birthday, Gorra published a long essay, “The Library of America at 30,” in The Sewanee Review.

LOA officials were so pleased with the essay that they’ve reprinted it as a promotional booklet sent to people in the book trade. Other readers can see an excerpt of the essay and purchase a full, downloaded copy here.

More information about the Library of America and its books is available at the library's website.

Gorra calls his essay a “mash note” to the Library of America, but it’s also contemplation of how a single book given as a Christmas present can lead to a lifetime of pleasure.

Which is why, today and always, books can be the best Christmas gifts of all.

 Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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