Best Christmas Gift Ever: ‘The Gifts of Reading’

by on December 15, 2021 · 3 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Colleen O’Connor

If you are reading this column, you will “bigly” appreciate the best Christmas gift ever. A book.

Not just any book, but one that draws you into the joys of the season, the thrill of holding a new pages containing amazing mysteries and adventures inside; and the ability to share it so it lives on, past anyone’s lifespan.

In short, a treasure.  A genuine heirloom.  And a timely antidote for any complaints.

The Gifts of Reading is an engrossing collection of short essays by some of the world’s finest and most celebrated writers.  Their international prizes won are too long to list here.

The joys they recount in the earliest years of their lives, when discovering the wonders of a book (especially as children) being read to by their mother, father, teacher or friend, unlock personal memories.

My earliest memory was the arrival of the Encyclopedia Britannica in our house.  It sparked wonder in me. How could so much knowledge, on so many topics, be in these collected pages.  Just open at random and learn lots you didn’t know before. Discovery. Knowledge in a bookcase.  I often just stared at the hardcover, multi-set encyclopedia with kind of awe, that I remember to this day.

As I did, with the beautifully bound family Bible, and the illustrated, large-page format of Dante’s Inferno, and Paradise Lost, with illustrations by Gustave Dore.  Staring at those intricate plates brought Heaven and Hell into being for me, but great art as well.

The book jacket for The Gifts of Reading does not exaggerate:

“You will see books taking flight in flocks, migrating around the world, landing in people’s hearts and changing them for a day or a year or a lifetime.”

The book’s authors recount their memories at discovering a book.  Their short essays span the spectrum from fiction, non-fiction, escape from wars, poverty, discovering the theater, explaining fine wines, or riding a yak delivering books to the Himalayas.

My favorite adventure essay is by a young Times of London journalist, who covered the 1953 Sir Edmund Hillary, British expedition up Mt. Everest. The slog, courage, and initiative needed to climb to a camp at 22,000 feet, (with virtually no mountaineering experience), is riveting.

The journalist’s foresight and pluck to devise a code (no 5G or phone booths or transmission towers); then secure the fastest Sherpas as relay-runners (in order to confuse world-wide competitors) and get the news to London just in time for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation is great fun to read.

More serious, but even more moving, is William Boyd’s essay about a character surviving solitary confinement in a German prison camp in 1917, with the help of a kindly guard who “feeds” him a few pages of Jean-Jacques, The Confessions, bit by bit. The pages sustain the prisoner and keeps him sane.

Boyd writes:

“Annals of prison life testify again and again to the fact that a book can be as precious as food and water, it can even be a substitute for freedom itself.  Reading a book allows the mind to escape, if not the body.”

Reading a book, freely, in a public library, is a theme often repeated in the pages of the best Christmas gift ever.  Again, from the book’s flyleaf:

“You will see books sparking wonder or angers; throwing open windows into other languages other cultures, other minds; causing people to fall in love toto fight for what is right.”

And, best of all, The Gifts of Reading was published to coincide with the 20th anniversary of a global literacy non-profit, Room to Read; delivering literacy and girls’ education in ten countries in Asia and Africa.

Their book giving has already impacting 20 million children; more than twice the original goal.

So, choose a book, and give a book to someone this Christmas.

What you buy, what you give, to whomsoever receives your book, might just inspire a limitless mind for limitless times beyond this Christmas.

The Best Christmas Gift Ever.








{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Gravitas December 16, 2021 at 12:22 pm

A grammar school friend remarked on this column: Emergency Room MD; UCSD grad.

“Nice article. We also had the Encyclopedia Britannica in our house. Never thought about who rote it but I did like to pick up a Volume and just start reading.
When Ellie (my daughter) was in 2nd grade she had to come home and count the books in our library. I believe it was around 3,000…. I hope with all of the internet and Youtube that kids do not loose that desire to read a book.”


Gravitas December 17, 2021 at 8:41 am

Another friend..

I remember Safeway had a program where you could buy a volume of an encyclopedia for I think a dime if you bought so much in groceries. I too couldn’t understand who the person was who wrote that book and knew so much about everything!


Gravitas December 17, 2021 at 8:44 am

From Don Bauder:

Your wonderful essay made me think of a great short story, “The Celestial Omnibus,” by E.M. Forster. A young boy is enchanted by the wonders he finds in books. His snobbish elders think books are something to show off on the shelf — not bother to read. At one point, one of the snobs says to the books, “I have bound you in vellum.” The books express their preference for the boy’s naive enthusiasm. The books want to be read, not simply bound in vellum. I’ll you could do a great essay on that Forster short story. Best, Don


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