The best part of Christmas? Reading

As part of the anthology 'On Christmas,' writer Sue Townsend remembers how the Christmases of her childhood included plenty of books.

'On Christmas' is published by Notting Hill Editions.

This holiday season, I’ve been under the spell of "On Christmas," a lovely anthology of yuletide writings produced by Notting Hill Editions, a small British publisher that specializes in collections of essays both old and new.

A bright red hardcover, "On Christmas" is distributed here in the United States by New York Review Books. The selections draw on the work of everyone from Charles Dickens to Anton Chekhov to P.G. Wodehouse, but my favorite essay is by Sue Townsend, an English writer who died in 2014. Townsend grew up in a working-class family that had little money, but the Christmases of her childhood included plenty of books.

Townsend celebrates reading as the best part of Christmas, even confessing that she preferred reading to relatives. I suspect that many readers feel the same way, though perhaps they wouldn’t be as candid as Townsend in declaring their holiday bibliophilia.

At any rate, I found myself nodding in solidarity as Townsend recalled finding a trove of treasured volumes under the tree, craving a little solitude to savor them all. “I would always be given lots of books from the Woolworths Classic book collection,” she writes. “It was in those books that I first read 'Little Women,' 'Kidnapped,' 'What Katie Did,' 'Tom Sawyer,' 'Jane Eyre,' 'Robinson Crusoe,' 'Uncle Tom’s Cabin,' etc.”

For Townsend, it was an embarrassment of riches. “I would start to read immediately, breaking off reluctantly to eat my Christmas dinner.... As soon as dinner was eaten and the washing up had been done and put away, I would resume reading. Sometimes I would be called to play one of the board games that had been given to one of my sisters. I was not a good games player. I was not competitive. I did not pay attention and I didn’t care who won or lost. I just wanted to get back to my reading.”

My own literary haul this Christmas will no doubt be bountiful. I expect it will include William Boyd’s new novel, "Love is Blind"; Elaine Pagels’ spiritual memoir, "Why Religion"; and a recently reissued edition of "The Reader Over Your Shoulder," Robert Graves’ classic guide to writing. I have also asked Santa for "Dear Los Angeles," a new anthology of letters about the City of Angels; "The World-Ending Fire," which assembles the best essays of agrarian writer Wendell Berry; and Everyman’s Library editions of "The Diary of Samuel Pepys," "Horace Walpole’s Selected Letters," and another Robert Graves classic, the memoir "Goodbye to All That."   

That’s a lot of books for Christmas. With any luck, after the bustle of Christmas morning, I’ll find some time to read.

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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