Summer 2013, Cork, Ireland. I’m in my favourite room in my favourite house – my grandmother’s library. It’s teeming with books of all sorts, from Dante to Woolf, from art criticism to self-help manuals. To any literature lover, this sounds like an ideal haven. The vintage appeal of the place, with its floral carpeting and its intricately carved coffee tables, make it not only the best place to look for books, but also to dwell in them for hours on end. Any room that is full of books is enough to keep me happy; however, this one has a special appeal. I’m from a long line of literature lovers, as my grandfather and uncle were published writers. Yet my grandfather passed away when I was twelve, and my uncle when I was nine. With my understanding of literature being much less cultivated back then, I never had the opportunity to share it with them.
After browsing some prose, I move onto some poetry. I spot a collection from one of my favourite Scottish poets, Norman MacCaig. I stroke its cover adoringly, smell it (lovers of old books will understand this), and open it. Upon doing so, my heart jumps with excitement. There is a message: it was a gifted book! It reads ‘for Dad – forever young, Inchydoney July 14 1994, with love/Greg’. Above the message there is a drawing of a little cat, looking out to sea, with a lighthouse and the moon in the background. Tears of overwhelming gratitude consume me. I’m used to finding gifted books containing messages in this library, but this is extra special. I feel like an archaeologist excavating a rare fossil. My Uncle Greg didn’t just gift this to his father, the person who gave him his love for literature, but also for his future niece, and for anyone else who might stumble upon this collection in years to come. Because my relatives left such messages, their love of literature has now been passed onto me.
Of all the stories about my grandfather and uncle, the fragments I read contained in their books are the most authentic. By leaving and receiving such traces, they have essentially sketched out their autobiographies. They have achieved their immortality by literally living in my fingertips. And it is my mission to do the same, both for myself and for the future readers of my beloved books.
Among the dozens of books, there is an abundance of messages from them and for them. One comes with a letter to my grandfather from a young student, asking for advice on how to get his writing published. Another has a message from one of my favourite Irish poets, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, who gifted a collection of her poems to my uncle upon its release. I can’t help but wonder how many of their unmarked books were also gifted to them. Because of this, I never once considered it impersonal or unoriginal to give someone a book for their birthday or for Christmas. To me, it is the most thoughtful and reciprocal gift someone could give. And it is by far the best present I could receive, meaning that this Christmas I’ll be giving out lots of books with personal messages, and I hope to receive many back.
You can give someone a candle, but it’ll burn out. You can give someone chocolate, but it’ll be consumed all-too quickly. You can give someone some toiletries, but you’ll only smell of shea butter and oriental magnolia for about a week or two. I still read the books that were given to me when I was young, and if I have children, they’ll read them too. The birthday messages on my gifted books often remind me of the age I was when I first read it, allowing me to activate dormant childhood memories. Don’t get me wrong, candles, chocolate, and nicely-smelling toiletries are great gifts, and happen to be among my favorite modes of self-care. But by giving somebody a book with a message, you’re giving them a relic of yourself. Something that will probably survive a lot longer than you will. We all know where we’ll be in a hundred years – in the ground, scattered in a field, or sitting on the mantelpiece. But who knows where that book – that relic of you – will end up. Maybe one day you’ll inspire someone’s love of literature like my relatives did for me. And, speaking from personal experience, that’s the greatest gift anyone could ever give.
[Sarinah O’Donoghue – @historysactor]
Image courtesy of Aike Jansen.