Give the holiday gift with the most staying power

Even the best Christmas gifts lose their luster within a few months. Books have a staying power few gifts can match. I have nothing left from Christmases long past except my childhood books, each still prized. This season, give books. They are our bulwarks against time, ignorance, and barbarity.

For weeks we have been inundated with gift catalogs – page after page of things to give for the holidays. But the operative word is “things.” So, if you are still shopping, you might consider giving someone you really care about a book for Christmas or Hanukkah. Think of it as the gift of wisdom.

Few things are more lastingly satisfying than a life of reading. I still have my childhood copies of “The Little Engine That Could,” “Loopy,” “Uncle Remus,” and “Old Mother West Wind Stories.” None of those children’s books is less than 65 years old, and though I have nothing else left from Christmases two-thirds of a century ago, I still have my books from childhood.

In our family we have a Christmas tradition. Everyone is given a book, because if every other gift is a dud, “a book never faileth.” Few other gifts are the equal of reading. Not new skis, toys, ties, or even an iPadLife without books can be rather vacant.

Recently, sitting at this computer, I turned to the bookshelf behind me and discovered the autobiographical work “The Confessions of St. Augustine.” (The painters had shuffled the books in the library when repainting recently.) It was a 1991 Book of the Month Club selection and had remained unopened since my wife purchased it for me. (Imagine trying to turn on a Kindle untouched after 20 years!)

I reached back, read the first page of this journey from sinful youth to Christian conversion, and discovered a treasure written in AD 397. Reading the thoughts and wisdom of someone who lived more than a millennium and a half ago is true time travel.

The very act of holding a book is a sensual experience. It’s old-fashioned and comforting. My financial manager recently confessed a deep secret: His wife was going to Baltimore for the evening and he relished the time alone with a book. 

“What I find very exciting is sitting in a room in an otherwise dark house, resting in my chair with a blanket over me. I will have a fire in the fireplace and but one reading lamp on. The dog is lying beside me, and I am reading a book. I have trouble defining a happier moment.”

Another thing about books – they have a staying power few other gifts can match. Who will ever forget the first time reading “Don Quixote” or “Moby-Dick” or “Pride and Prejudice”? They are passports into other worlds. Years later, I still chuckle recalling the bawdy adventures of the fictional “Flashman” character. But the Flashman chronicles are first-rate historical fiction, however implausible. 

Give someone a book for Christmas because of the sheer pleasure it conveys.

Books may be the truest of loves.

A friend who grew up in Argentina recalled “our small, British school, 60 girls, from kindergarten to high school. [It had] a one-room library filled from floor to ceiling with books. Once a year, one by one, the last day of school, the headmistress summoned us. She chose the books we’d take home over our three-month summer holiday. I took them to the ranch where we spent most of our summers. I remember sitting under the trees or up in some branches or lying under them reading, reading, reading: ‘Little Men,’ ‘Little Women,’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ I hope the books stayed in Buenos Aires after the headmistress sold the school and returned to England.”

Two centuries later Jefferson’s words, “I cannot live without books,” still ring true. 

Books have changed the course of history. Mass printing of Bibles in the 16th century broke the medieval church’s proprietary control over what people should believe.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” exposing the brutality of human slavery, prompted President Lincoln to say, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” The quip may well be apocryphal, but the implications were spot on. 

Books are our bulwarks against ignorance and barbarity. President Eisenhower once said, “Don’t be afraid to … read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.”

I once gave a commencement address suggesting new graduates read a book a week. They groaned. But then I added, “If you only read 30 books a year, you will be far better off than someone who does not read at all.”

It really takes selflessness to give a book as a gift. It requires thinking hard about what someone else will enjoy. Isn’t such selfless giving what Christmas is about? 

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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