As another commencement season arrives, a lot of us are wondering what kind of gift to give our favorite graduate. This makes me think of a special present I received after graduating from college nearly three decades ago – a book that continues to shape how I think about life and work.
At the close of my undergraduate career at Southeastern Louisiana University in 1986, I managed to nab an award for excellence in liberal arts studies. Alas, no cash prize was involved – just a certificate noting my accomplishment. But Delmas Crisp, the chair of the university English department, wanted me to have something else: a deluxe edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best novels.
The book was bound in blue, bonded leather, with embossed lettering across the front and gilt pages inside. The physical quality of the volume told me that literature was something valuable, high-minded, worth defending and passing down from one generation to the next. That was a good thing to know as I left campus and entered a world in which literature doesn’t always or even usually command a high place of honor in national life. Seeing that blue book on my shelf all these years, as I’ve pursued a life full of reading and writing, has been a source of encouragement for me. It’s a touchstone, a telling reminder that books matter.
In giving me a nice book on graduation, Dr. Crisp was also, in a small but profound way, treating me like a peer. He was telling me that he thought I could grasp and be enriched by good books on my own, away from the directed learning of college instruction. The Hawthorne book wasn’t assigned reading; it was a text shared between one avid reader and another. I was being acknowledged as a fellow grown-up, which is a flattering thing for any graduate.
Dr. Crisp was also telling me, as he pressed the book into my hand, that books are more than sources of classroom instruction. They are also there for us to savor, to cherish, to enjoy. This new book I was holding, unlike the blandly manufactured college texts I’d been lugging around, was clearly designed for pleasure. Just as Hawthorne gave pleasure in novels such as “The Scarlet Letter” and “The House of the Seven Gables,” so I would be expected to in my own life as a writer to give pleasure, too.
There was another message in the gift that Dr. Crisp had made of Hawthorne. I was now being told, not so subtly, that my work as a reader of literature wasn’t finished, even though I had my college diploma now. I had, instead, embraced the work of a lifetime.
Not all of this was clear to me as Dr. Crisp handed me Hawthorne’s collected works on that bright spring day. Truth be told, I didn’t fully know what to make of the gift I’d been given. The book sat unopened on my shelf for many years as I moved from apartment to house to house, marrying and having children. I have finally read its pages now, grasped at least some of the lessons inside. After all this time, I’m still a student, as any reader is when he opens a text and asks an author to talk to him for a while.
What to give that graduate on your gift list this year? Give something bright or frivolous – a designer watch. But consider, too, giving the lucky grad a book.
Who knows? You might change a life, as Dr. Crisp changed mine.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”