I rarely deviate from the formula here, even when times are slow, but I really want you to meet and fall in love with this amazing blogger and advice columnist. I’ve linked her blog above, but she’s also on tumblr here.
Lady A is smart, wise, funny, and very sexy. For a long time, she’s had an alternative sex advice column in the Chicago Phoenix, but it’s time the rest of you met her too.
He knew by then that I was in love with him. I told him the week before he started seeing someone else. She was beautiful and perfect and I knew that I had to be happy for him because he was my best friend.
He told me this book reflected the reckless side of his character nobody ever really saw. Except me, of course. I knew that boy like the back of my own hand. Still do, in fact.
Ultimately the book itself didn’t really matter. And yet I devoured every page like a starving woman. Anything to get closer to this beautiful enigma. Sometimes we read chapters together, sometimes I read alone. The words embraced me like he never would.
Finishing the last page was my own personal therapy. I couldn’t sit around for the next book recommendation. I had to write my own story.
It wasn’t always obvious to me what my brothers and I had in common. They were loud and boisterous, whereas I was quieter and more studious. On any given day during the summer, they could be found yelling and diving into the swimming pool, and I would be listening to them from my room as I built a new Lego castle. Despite our more obvious differences, however, we all loved to read, and as we got older, found great pleasure in discussing and loaning books to one another.
My brothers loved to read the Hap and Leonard series by Joe Lansdale. They had discovered him around the same time (although both would lay claim to being “first”), and would spend hours talking about the characters, their favorite lines, the bizarre plot twists. I never made a point of reading them until my younger brother gave me a copy of his favorite installment to the series, Captain’s Outrageous, for Christmas, and told me to be finished with it by New Years. He was so excited for me that I started reading that night, and finished by the next afternoon.
I didn’t care much for the story, and I still don’t. But it occupies a permanent space on my bookshelf because it gave me something far more important than the story of a half-baked caper. Reading this book, I began to understand my brothers in a different way. Their admiration for the main characters spoke volumes about their own desires for fairness and justice. Their raucous laughter over ridiculous jokes told me that they had held on to a sense of silliness well into their adulthood. Their anger toward the antagonist gave lie to a protectiveness that they had never grown out of. Reading this book, I was able to know my brothers more deeply than I had since we were children. I started waiting eagerly for the latest novels to come out, thrilled at the prospect of now sharing in the latest adventures of Hap and Leonard.
A year after giving me Captain’s Outrageous, my younger brother took his own life. It didn’t make sense then, and it still doesn’t. I stopped reading Joe Lansdale, although I kept the book. I won’t get rid of it. Occasionally, the blue-green cover catches my eye and makes me stop to wonder at this painful and wonderful gift. This reminder that, despite everything else, for a moment, because of this book, I understood my brother in a truly honest way. The way I will always prefer to remember him.
I am old enough to have gone to school back when nice handwriting was a thing. And at age ten or so, mine was a very terrible thing to behold, as sloppy and messy and unreadable as that of any doctor. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t do it.
My stepfather decided after one too many tearful conversations between my parents, my teacher, and me, to do something about it, so he set me the task of copying out in cursive longhand a book. A page a day he said, and gave me one of his “special for work” big unlined notepads—a block of typing paper, I realize now, but it mattered back then that it was “special”. A page a day is a not too onerous amount although it seemed a Mt Everest of writing at the time, and he thought my problem was that I didn’t write anything of any length and never fell into the rhythm of it.
And so this was the book he picked off the bookshelf, after a good half hour of back and forth. Something I hadn’t read, something a little challenging, but still fun, he said.
Oh I hated every minute of that task. Hot summer afternoons were the worst torture, the last thing I wanted to do was sit inside for an hour and copy from those yellowing pages, the complicated language, the endlessly long sentences. But my stepfather was a hard man, and sit there I did. Every day, for nearly a year, sometimes copying a page three times over until it was judged done well enough.
But somewhere late in that year, I realized, I was looking forward to it each day. To returning to the world of Davey and Alan Breck, to find out what happened next. I don’t know to this day if it’s as good as I remember, because every time I pick it up I am once again that little girl sitting at the desk, so engrossed in the adventure I don’t even notice that I’m hard at work. I realized I loved this story to pieces.
And I remember the pride I felt when I finished copying out this book, and realized something else: My handwriting no longer sucked. At the local fair the next spring, along with the jams and huge tomatoes and dioramas and granddad’s prize Angus Bull, there on the wall was a little calligraphy display of small posters by the best students of each class, mine up there right along with the rest.
My stepfather and I did not get along. Not at all, not then, and not later. I left home when I was 15, after he raised his voice and his fists at me one time too many, and I picked up a chair and swung it at him, breaking his jaw. We sort of ended in a state of armed peace many years later, but I don’t think we were ever alone together in a room, or had a direct conversation ever again.
But two things he gave me, along with my only truly good memory of him: He gave me Kidnapped. And killer handwriting.
"This book reminded me of you" you muttered as you nudged the book forward towards me. You said the book was me. I didn’t understand how a book could contain an individual’s essence. But I kind of understood after reading it. Now whenever I read a book, there’d be times when it starts screaming at me- producing the character of one of my loved ones.
Stumped for gift ideas for your book-loving friends? Show them you understand their passions… give a book about giving books. Full of inspiring, tear-jerking, exhilarating stories about love, life, and books, The Books They Gave Me is just the right way to show someone you love them.
It’s your birthday, some eight months since we first got to know each other. I posted a Personals ad on Craigslist, and you responded, and your love for poetry, in particular an obscure Danish poet impressed me greatly. Needless to say, I’ve had the hugest crush on you since then. You mentioned that you would one day like to own your own copies of all her books, and so I got you a copy of ‘It’.
I didn’t read poetry until I met you. You made poetry approachable and accessible to me, and this has been a life-changing eight months. In these eight months I (tried to) read what you like, and discovered some favourites of my own. I still don’t get Inger Christensen as I duly noted in in the book I got for you; I vandalized your present with copious marginalia using Post-Its. I’ve left pieces of me in a book for you, so that in time to come, you will always have a reminder of me in something you love. It’s my cunning move.
Once upon a time I thought I might be gay. That was okay, my friends were pretty cool with me being a potential lesbian and a lot angry and hung out with me to boy-watch and squealed in my ears about cute boys anyway.
Then one night I met you. You gorgeous pale little shit. I fell a little in love with you the moment I saw you. And then I proceeded to act all stupid and manly around you because I thought you might be gay and I basically hated your guts because I thought you weren’t manly enough.
Then one day one of my friends pointed out that you were actually kind of cute. And that smart was the new sexy. And I saw that they were kind of right, if you squinted, and I had to admit to myself that I actually liked you. A lot. You were kind of a pretty guy, if kinda dorky. But you were alright.
And then one Christmas there was a gift exchange thing going on and my code name was that I wanted a book. Literally, “I want a book.” And then I got this book. From you. What the fuck. Wow.
I wish you’d given me something like Eragon or that stuff you used to read yourself, not something you thought I might’ve liked. Maybe a Harry Potter book, I would’ve loved that. Or a Mythology book, even. I guess I should’ve been honest and said “Egyptology!” instead of just saying “Whatever.”
But as much as I came to hate Sparks’s guts and his sappy formulaic writing, I still have the card you wrote that came with the book. And I’m still kind of in love with you, you dork. You probably shouldn’t have hugged me that one time because I’m still not over that. Whoops.
You told me you were leaving on a late summer afternoon. I said I was happy for you, and I was - it was something you felt you needed to do, and I didn’t disagree. Still, some part of me imagined you asking me to go away with you, and imagined me saying I would…a silly thought, I knew then and still know now, but sometimes we have silly thoughts even though we know we shouldn’t. You knew this better than anyone.
I thought long and hard about how to say goodbye to you, even though I didn’t think it would really be goodbye. In the end, I bought you this book. I was going to give you my own beloved, dog-eared copy, but every time I read it, it speaks to me differently. I wanted you to find your own meaning in it, and not get caught up in the passages I’d marked. And, secretly, I was afraid you wouldn’t find as much meaning or reassurance in it as I had - that you wouldn’t appreciate it. Despite everything, sometimes I still felt as if I didn’t know you at all.
When I finally handed it to you, I was afraid it was too sentimental, that you would read it the wrong way. I re-read it myself, that night, and I realized there was no wrong way for you to read it…that made me feel better, as this book always does.
I haven’t really heard from you since you left. I miss you more than I thought I would, and I’m more hurt by it than I thought I’d be. I want to ask you if you read it, if you liked it, if it burrowed under your skin and into your heart like it did mine. But instead, I say nothing, and quietly hope that the universe has conspired to help you find your treasure.
In August 2010 I was starting my senior year of art school. In many ways I was the “it girl” of that whole scene- the life of the party, the drugs, the drinking, the drama, the many men, but I also always maintained my dominant love for my art of writing. Despite binge drinking 5 nights a week and pulling all nighters for absurdly named classes, I ate books whole. I’ve always been consumed with everything from Bukowski and Keruoac to Camus and Hesse.
I was heavily into my Hemingway phase when I ran into an acquaintance, M, on the street one day. We had shared classes and joints at random parties over the years but we had never actually spent time alone. We somehow ended up skipping class to smoke bongs in my apartment and instantly bonded over every shared and disputed interests. He made fun of my hippie taste and I called him a hipster- we became inseparable after that, I don’t think he spent a single night in his own bed.
M was interesting and quirky- he had a thousand pearly white teeth and a ridiculous taste in music. The main thing I remember most about our time together was laughter and exploration. He opened my eyes to new authors, crazy indie films, and subsequently, heroin. We didn’t turn into two junkies- at the risk of sounding delusional and in denial, we were creating our own little world together of happiness consisting of art and literature, my love of music and his love of baseball, and our newfound friend in dope. We never injected anything- rather we’d lay in my bed writing poetry, drinking beers, and sniffing lines. I always felt warm with Mike, like I was home.
As the year wore down we were faced the inevitable truth that I would soon be moving back home to New York, something we never discussed, it simply wasn’t our style. I went to M’s parents house in Delaware for his graduation party- his family loved me as much as he did, although no one knew our secret.
It was then that he gave me his copy of “Story of My Life”- I read it in two hours. It was the story of a jaded, sexually explorative, party girl looking for love in all the wrong places; it was no War and Peace. The book itself was shallow and the main character was a coked out, female version of Holden Caulfield but yet it rang true for me. In the gifting of this one seemingly ridiculous book, I realized that Mike understood me better than most people. He looked for no reasoning, demanded no explanations.
I don’t remember our last encounter- I moved back to NY that summer and although M and I continued to speak and share ideas daily, in my heart I knew I’d never see him again. It was time to grow up. I’d hear from M every few months or so- he was working on a film in Texas or flying out to California. I received a Facebook message from him one day asking about my current relationship status, I told him I was married now and a few months pregnant. While he expressed genuine happiness for me (he truly was a kind hearted person) he also let me know that he still loved me, that he wished it was him. When my daughter was born in December 2012 M sent me a beautiful message and well wishes which lead me to the dreadful act of Facebook stalking. I didn’t even recognize M in his pictures- he was covered in tattoos now, hanging out with a heavy punk crowd and had a girlfriend who had gotten divorced a month earlier. A part of me was sad to see the old M that I knew and loved had changed so much but I guess he could’ve said the same about me; my pictures were now of an infant and family life.
On April 1st, 2013 I found out that M had killed himself early that morning. I sat on my couch in my beautiful little home with my baby daughter napping in the next room and sobbed for hours. I pondered all the questions you have when anyone takes their own life, I pored through photographs of us from our graduation night and Phillies games, I replayed our last conversation over and over again in my mind. I re-read the book that M had given me, it had a completely different meaning and effect on me this time but it still evoked the notion that ironically M was one of the big pushes I needed to change my life. Underneath the partying and bad decisions, M brought out the best in me. Like the main character in the story, he saw through my bullshit and into my heart; I will forever remember him as the guy that gave me the story of my life.
I still remember that summer. Even at 7 I was already an avid reader and had built myself a sanctuary in the trees, my only connection with the world outside a basket and a rope over a limb that I used to raise and lower my books for the day. You came to me and handed me this little frail book, the plastic on the outside crackling slightly like secret whispers from the enigmatic girl on the cover. You asked if I knew the first poem, one called “Success.” I said no. You told me to read it, and I read it and every other poem in the book. A week later, you came to me again and asked if I knew it. I said I read it, and you told me that I didn’t know it yet. So I took another week and memorized it. You came back and asked if I knew it. I stood with my hands gripping the book and recited it, every line. You told me I still didn’t know it. So I took another week. And another. I read it again, I really read it. I felt it, I understood it. It blew my mind, and I have never looked at the written word the same way. After that summer, every book is a new world that maybe I don’t want to live in, but I can respect. Every poem a piece of someone’s soul, and I admire the person that was brave enough to tear themselves to pieces and hide them in books for some future lover.
You don’t read poetry anymore. You don’t tell me you love me anymore. You sit in your house with your drugs and your demons and convince yourself that it’s the fault of everyone you know except yourself. I hold this book close to me now that you are a shadow of what you once were, and remind myself that no matter how lost you are, you were once strong and wild and magnificent and my hero. I wish I still had you here. It hurts to think that my nieces and nephews, my someday-children will not have a grandfather, that they will inherit the burden of a raging boogeyman disguised as a pitiful broken man instead of the brilliant and caring person I had the privilege of knowing. But they will have this book, and this poem, and I will be there to pass on the lessons of your life. I will be there to ask the important questions.
When I was little, my mom would tease me each year by telling me she was getting me a book for my birthday. It’s not that I didn’t like books, we just had so many – more than I could ever read – and while I had my favorites, a few well-read books, worn out, their jackets long lost and pages scotch taped in a quick fix, I never considered a new book something special.
I invited him to my 19th birthday party after just a few dates into our relationship. We weren’t even serious – he had big plans to move to another country and I was coming out of my first long relationship. But his was a very romantic, old-fashioned kind of courtship – very different from all the other men I knew. He sent me poems, not his own, but lyrics of his favorite Leonard Cohen songs, which I never heard before but was really beginning to love, thanks to him. I just got my fist Cohen CD, and was raving about the beauty of his poetry, wishing I knew more. For my birthday he didn’t get me anything – instead, he gave me his own copy of Stranger Music, Cohen’s collected poems. His old, worn out, missing a dust jacket copy, a book I knew he loved, which made the present that much more special. It was the sweetest and one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received. A couple of years later, at our wedding, he laughed that he only gave it to me because he knew he was getting it back – and true enough, two kids and many years later, it’s still sitting on our bookshelf.
I found myself returning to that book many times throughout the years. I still love Leonard Cohen and read his poems for their wisdom and sad beauty. And while we may have nothing left in common with the two romantic kids we used to be, I still treasure the man who gave me this book.
J gave me this book. He never stops talking; he loves to talk about India. What the place means to him I don’t really understand. I don’t think I need to. We all have our own India. And in pointing me to this book, he put his finger directly on mine.
Varanasi is an ancient city—legendarily, the most ancient in all of India, the root of the Ganges and the root of the people. There, on the ghats, bodies are ceremonially burned and the ashes are swept into the river. In which supplicants also bathe, because the holiness of the waters there renders any concern for hygiene ridiculous. Hygiene is a ridiculous concept in a city awash in filth, anyway. Because the spiritual wealth of this city is what matters; die here and be cremated on the ghat, and your soul will be freed from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Die on the other side of the Ganges’ bank and your soul will be downgraded; you will be reborn as a donkey. Varanasi is a good place to die.
Reincarnation is poorly understood by Western minds. Is it really such a bad thing to be born as an animal instead of a human? Does a donkey mind that it’s a donkey? Buddhism can point us to a different way, helping us to let go of concern for our selves and our tiresome vanity, our need to be “happy,” to be fulfilled, to be appreciated. Keeping your head above water as you navigate life’s currents is essential, but often we jump into deep waters when we could just as easily wade nearer the shore. We always seem to complicate things for ourselves, and, lacking the austere self-control of Buddhism, sometimes we need the shock of death to steer us out of the complexity of deep water and into the shallows where we can travel more simply through our lives.
For some of us, that death can be our own. Dyer’s nameless narrator comes to Varanasi, exhausted, jaded, and numbed by life. He intends at first to stay for a few days, and ends up staying for months. Living cheaply, immersed in immersion, he just stays. And as he does, his sense of self and his attachments to the world slip. Immolation and annihilation ensue. Finally scoured clean, seared inside and out by a wicked intestinal virus, the fever-scorched and brittle narrator has a barber shave his head, then promptly runs into an old acquaintance from before Varanasi, who eyes him, terrified. Dyer writes: “I am in mourning for myself…my old self refuses to die. The new is struggling to be reborn. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
And this is the moment in the text which grabbed me, the passage where I could not stop my feet from dancing against the subway car’s linoleum, when my heart leapt, when I could not blink the tears from my eyes before they fell; the moment that mirrored my own life in a way I can never adequately explain to my new friend. For me it was not a virus, but my own body that turned against me—for reasons no one will ever know. The cure was: scorching, searing chemicals pumped into my body via a port embedded under the skin below my collarbone. Right side. Its installation and removal left a pair of scars that now resemble a small, faint pink lipstick kiss mark.
But the chemicals did their work; carefully dosed acids poured right through my heart killed the errant cells and burned out of me all laziness, all hesitance, all patience for bullshit and distraction, and, once I was well again, pushed me onto a surer path. Immolation. The old must die so the new can be born. And we are born bald, bald as a chemo patient.
Varanasi is on the Ganges river. My rebirth took place on the shores of Lake Michigan. And how very sad it is that some of us need to be pushed to the brink of death before we see who it is we were meant to be, and the way to change.
This is a relationship about which no predictions can (or even need) be made. But this moment of connection, fostered by the sharing of a book, is real.
My cousin gave me this book for Christmas one year and told me she learned a lot from it. It made me angry and it made me fiercely proud; I learned so much about what it meant to be Irish Catholic. This book gave me respect for ancestors I never knew. It was passionate and raw like no other book I’ve read. I will forever be grateful to my cousin for this wonderful gift.
As a child, it is hard to understand the rarity of a truly happy ending. Because they are everywhere for us when we are six and seven. We don’t have to look very far to find one. We are, in a way, sheltered from the cold, cruel fact that happy endings are less likely than sad ones. The thought does not compute.
When my mother gave me “The Giving Tree,” I couldn’t contain my excitement. I loved Shel Silverstein’s poetry and knew this book would be no different. I read the entirety in less than 20 minutes. And I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would.
“Mom, what is this?” I asked, and she simply looked at me. ”What is this? Why would you let me read this?”
She didn’t understand. She just continued looking at me.
“That boy is TERRIBLE! The tree loved him, and he used her! He forgot all about her and then he just USED her!”
I remember she smiled a bit, but just continued to look at me with simple curiosity.
“Well?! That’s not fair!”
“Is it unfair? Or is there something beautiful in a love like that? It’s endless and unconditional. Isn’t that beautiful?” she asked me, and I just stared at her. Beautiful? How could that be beautiful? It felt nothing but lonely to me.
“That’s what happens, sweetheart. People change and they move on. Things change. Life changes. We grow up and grow old. It’s inevitable - the passing of time. But love is always there, surrounding you. And that is beautiful.”
Years later, I still get sad and feel terribly lonely whenever I read this book. But it has shaped me in a way that no other book has. It opened my eyes, it forced me to question the “happy ending” and, more specifically, change. And made me - just a little bit - begin to admit how beautiful that can be.
K was like this really hippie kind of girl that i used to hang out with, a little too tepid for my ‘wild’ attitude as a teen, so when she gave me this book to read , i was ready to pass. Although, since i thought of myself as an open minded person i began reading page after page, being drawn into its magnificent world only to find out that this book had changed my life. I had become the book and the book, had become me, if i can say so! I have lived with its dogmas since,and would recommend as one of my top reads to anyone, but the one thing i really learned from this experience, is that every single person you get to know can make a huge difference in your life, if you let them!
We grew up together; I watched you transform from a dopey kid with too long of hair into a still dopey man with short hair and confidence and a smile that could knock the air out of my lungs. You watched me, well, I took a little longer to change. I gave it to you after gym class junior year. I was sweaty and red faced and wanted the moment to be much more poetic and life changing than it was. I claimed it was my favorite book because it was dark and twisty and edgy—everything I wished I was. You were so interested in it; I like to think it was because you realized that in giving you this, I was offering you a tiny piece of my soul. I had discovered long before that moment that I would give you anything to make us more connected. I hassled you for weeks about reading it, checking to see if you’d started it and where you were now. You always gave vague, non-committal answers and eventually I stopped asking. I never got the book back though, and now four years later, I still think about it sometimes. I think you may have a much larger piece of my soul than that book. And even though you don’t know it, you can keep them both as long as you’d like.
Two years ago I was nursing a broken heart after being deceived by someone I truly cared about.
My friend gave me this book and suggested I read it because she thought I needed to hear the words in the book.
I read it in 12 hours straight the first time, and found hidden between the pages restored faith and healing. This book has made me believe in love and the power of God and quite literally changed my life.
I am currently reading this book for the 20th time, and it always manages to heal a part of me that is yearning for a gentle touch or a warm embrace…
My girlfriend, M, is as much of an avid reader as I am. However, she typically reads the newest, hottest thing when it comes to novels and whatnot. Her mother is the Assistant Librarian at the High School that M and I went to, so that kind of helped fuel her ability to know what was new and great and what was new and crappy. I, on the other had, typically stick to history books (typically military history actually, it’s kind of my passion/ hobby) and the classic novels that everyone knows about but not many people tend to take the time to read (like Murder on the Orient Express, the Tom Clancy Series, and Gone With the Wind).
However, M said that I should read both The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, and The Story of Us, by Jay Asher. She said that they both were books that had changed her outlook on life. Now, being who I am, I thought that this was just another one of those teen phrases that had become emotionally numbed over time, like “I love that…”, and that she was just being a typical teenager. Little did I know that what she had just done was suggest the books that have helped me survive this last year through the emotional roller coaster ride that is the application process and Plebe (Fourth Class Year) Year at the United States Naval Academy.
I can’t explain it, but for some reason the books that she suggested to me were unlike any other I had read before. The text didn’t just sit there; it popped-out at me and its meanings and phrases touched my very soul. What M had done was give me a newer, fresher outlook on life. She suggested the books whose quotes I have used to make it through many hardships and hard work these past two years, the ones that have come to shape my work ethic and outlook on life!
These books taught me that it doesn’t matter how many hardships come your way in life, because if you try hard enough and continue to trust in the Lord and the loved ones around you, and seek them for guidance in times of trouble, that you will be successful and feel happy in the end when it really matters.
I honestly have no idea how in the world I can ever repay M for what she has done for me. She’s definitely put me on the right track; to be quite honest, I’d say she changed me for the better (not that I was bad to begin with; these books just gave me a new-found sense of humbleness, a necessary trait to have for us military leader types!
So M, at this time I will formally thank you for the transformation that you’ve given me!
It’s the perfect Valentine’s Day gift! Give your sweet-cheeks The Books They Gave Me. (Add a special inscription for maximum impact.) Available at your local bookstore, and at all of these places: Indiebound, Amazon, B&N, and iBooks.
When I was a child, our school library always fascinated me. Every time I enter it, I feel excited because I knew I could read and discover new books again. My fondness for books and reading became greater when my older sister (who loves reading too) gave me my first ever hard bound book entitled “Life in Many Lands”—A Childcraft Book. I was so thrilled that I really took time to read each story written in the book so as to savor it and let it linger in my mind. And of course, I had to read it over and over again. It was this book that opened my mind into the different culture and different places around the world. It was my golden ticket to access the places I’ve never been to. So, when our house was flooded before because of the tropical typhoon, I made sure that my book was kept in a safe place where the water couldn’t reach it. My book survived the many typhoons and flood that have passed our house here in the Philippines. And I know I have to continue to safe guard it as long as I live because it has become my precious gem.
It was our last morning together, or maybe our second to last. You never read, but we’d been talking about this book, talking about you being gay, and this you had read. It was new for you, being gay and being open, but you operated always as if you’d been there before.
You went out for coffee and brought it back as a surprise: The Meaning of Matthew. I read it cover to cover on the plane two days later when I moved to San Francisco.
I would see you again, twice, accidentally both times, on trips back to New York. You looked surprised and pained, and it killed me. That last time we didn’t speak, didn’t acknowledge each other. That twisted look you pulled, unintentionally I know but that’s what it was it was twisted, that face will haunt me.
We never fell out of love, we never had a big fight. We broke up because that’s what was practical. We broke up because the distance hurt too much. We broke up and now for the first time I count myself among the truly broken.
But The Meaning of Matthew sits on my shelf and it reminds me of how much worse my pain could be. It gives me perspective, which is what you always did. So: thank you.
We met in the drive-thru at starbucks. Me, on my way to a day long shift at a used bookstore ( more of a joy than a irritation to say the least) and him on the microphone taking my order for my daily dose of high priced caffeine. When I pulled up to the window it started with the usually barista small-talks.
"How’s your day?",
"Fine, going to work."
"Your drink will be done shortly."
Since the shop seemed quite busy on the inside, we started to talk about my work and he was pleased to hear that I worked at a bookstore.
"I’m a lit major."
"Wow, me too!"
"What’s your favorite book?"
We were holding up a line behind me. We didn’t really notice.
I started to give him the same drabble about Walden, my favorite book, and he nodded on about what I had to say about Thoreau and his journey. After I finished my spiel he remarked that Emerson was better. Much more hardcore than Thoreau. I was intrigued. By both his statement and himself as a person. I took his opinion with gratitude and, finally, my drink (which had cooled since our conversation started) and reluctantly left the drive thru.
It was only a week later upon going into that starbucks did I find a copy of Nature sitting where my drink should have been. After that day I guess you could give it the cliche title of calling it history. We started to see each other, our first date being to a book sale. We became transcendentalists, adventurers together in both physical and mental means. I, the Thoreau and Him, the Emerson.
I have a favorite book - Caravan by Dorothy Gilman. I have several copies but one of these is special. It was given to me by my mom and read at the exact perfect time (and then read again and again and again). This one particular copy of Caravan comes with me when I travel - a symbol of adventure, and a reflection of the type of strength that I aspire to. It is falling apart, stained with mud from Ecuador, full of sand from Africa, dog-eared, watermarked from several oceans and loved like no other book I own. I am grateful to my mom every time I pick it up - more and more delicately as the years and miles go by.
We had been confused as both sisters and lovers, we always were so close. My friendship with you felt something like home, a safe place where I could really be myself. And you returned that.
Then time went on and you found A. A and you were magnificent and dangerous together. You encouraged each others’ obsessive thoughts of thinness and starvation. I tried to drag you back, but the more I persisted, the more you faded away.
One day I cry on the phone while you tell me about your newest diet. You get angry, say I don’t understand. I tell you to talk to me, make me understand.
You lend me Wasted. Marya Hornbacher’s writing is enticing. I read late at night and I read it quickly. It captures my mind thoroughly, creates snakes of those thoughts through my mind, and suddenly I get it. I get that even though I tried to be understanding, I wasn’t. I get that I cannot logically argue you back to health. I change my methods, I let you talk about the darkness under all that obsession. You tell me things then, you let me know what’s going on.
Over time, you get better.
I always value this book as the thing that connected us back together when you were so hard to reach. I value this book much more importantly as the way I came to understanding how I may be able to help. Not that it was only my help that allowed you to get better. You had done so much to be on that road. But knowing I wasn’t being useful to you before was impossibly difficult for me. To think that I couldn’t connect with you was incomprehensible. It’s a beautiful book, written with incredible depth to emotions as well as a scholar’s understanding of the way disorders develop. I cannot thank Marya enough.
Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. It was ironic that she gave me this book.. She was beautiful, wild, and uncontrollable. I recognized this when I first started dating her, and never dared to attempt to set rules or boundaries for her. I was thankful for the book, but never quite found the time to read it. As it sat on my bookshelf collecting dust our relationship progressed; it became firey, tumultuous, passionate… until at a certain point the fire raged beyond either of our control. She broke my heart, the details of which I feel would be unfair to divulge… but leaving me with such a book seemed fitting. I finally found the time to read it, in the long hours of bitter regret, depression, and insomnia that she left me alone to face. Through eyes brimming with tears I absorbed every page, hurting and healing as I read, seeing pieces of my lost love in every paragraph. I doubt the book would have meant half as much had it come from anyone else, or if it had been given to me at a different time. We don’t talk now. But I still re-read that book.
When will you be mailing out the books for people who have been included ?
Hello- all the US books have gone out. I’ll be mailing the international ones next week. If your story was featured in the book and you do not live in the US, please confirm your name and mailing address with me so I can be sure I’m sending to the right place!
In high school, when everyone else planned for college and attended parties (got wasted), I worked. I worked so that I could take some of the burden off my on-and-off again employed father. I woke up at six to go to school and I’d be back home by eight-thirty, with scarcely enough time each night to eat, do homework, and sleep. I planned on going full-time at my job, because dreams, as far as I was concerned, were for those with means.
And then I took a creative writing class. I’d always loved writing, but considered it a hobby which hadn’t evolved passed scribbling silly stories in notebooks and, on a rare occasion, slamming the keys of my family’s old word processor. The teacher for that class was a man named Mort Castle. I knew as I entered that first day this man was anything but ordinary. He didn’t present a syllabus or have us do the stupid icebreaker games that every other class did. He stood up at the front, with a smile and a gleam in his wizened eyes, and when he started talking about writing- about how much he loved it and why we do it and why it was so important- I felt something swell in my chest. We got our first assignment that night.
I ran home, pulled out an old notebook, and wrote- and I kept writing as I walked to work despite the horns blaring, and I kept writing at work despite the customers complaining, and I wrote until midnight when, pen in hand, I passed out. In that night I went through three drafts of a short story, two pages long when typed. It was nothing really. But it was everything.
I was the first to class, the first with my hand in the air to present. I read it with voice trembling, stopping and starting, trying to choke back the acid climbing up my throat. I looked up when I was done and saw, to my dismay, blank stares. Then Castle patted me on the back and asked the class what they thought. One by one hands shot up, each person wanting to tell me a different part about the story they liked, and, because I’m that kind of guy, I teared up.
Castle took me aside afterward- he hadn’t commented. Of course I was already cocky, my first piece and they all loved it. Soon I’d be making millions somehow.
“Patrick, that was good, but I want you to rewrite in first person.”
My brain skipped a beat.
Rewrite, my god, was it so bad?
He handed me a book, told me to read it, and said when I was done I ought to revisit the story. It was an old book, a thin paperback with amber pages, the blue-and-white cover unremarkable, saying nothing about the book inside, save that the title was Slaughter-House Five and the author’s name was Kurt Vonnegut. I nursed my pride at lunch, and during Spanish I opened the fragile thing and read the first page. Which led to the second. Which led to people honking and customers complaining and me getting very little sleep as I read the book in one night.
I’d read many books before, but none so voraciously. Castle planted the seed of a dream and now books were more than an escape- their ink and paper, their words and ideas, has become the ground from which my dream may grow.
I met a man by complete and utter fluke at a ukulele bar (neither of us play). We decided upon a short fling (we were both moving away for work in December). It was a great decision - we had the most amazing two months of adventures and laughter and joy (that neither of us expected). On our last night together, we cracked some champagne to toast to our odd pseudo-relationship and he gave me a book. I Am Legend. It belonged to his dad and is faded and yellowed and well-read by both of them. These few months (which were supposed to be inconsequential) have surpassed anything I could have expected. I am so lucky. (Goodbye, my dear).
Growing up, my brother and I were never close. He was always the baby, both of the family and of his classmates, and we had little in common. Even now, after we have started developing a relationship of sorts, we still have a hard time getting each other. So, when my brother announced that he already knew what he was going to get me for Christmas this year, I shrugged off the comment, assuming that I would be getting another iTunes gift card, the gift he had been giving me for the past couple of years.
Christmas morning arrived, and I was surprised to find a large, lumpy package with my name scrawled across it in his handwriting. When I opened it, I found three Tintin books— books that he had always loved, and I had, until recently, rarely thought about. Despite never having read any of the brave reporter’s adventures, he and his sidekick held the key to certain fond memories, and as my brother explained why he chose the specific books he gave me, I realised that he understood their significance in my life. I reached over to give him a hug, and, instead of squirming away like he usually does, he let me.
I can’t answer this question. Each one is precious, because I respect the feelings behind it. Collectively, all the stories, the ones in the book and the ones on the blog, form a bigger picture about who we are, who humans are. The things we love, the people we love. The irritations, the joys.
One of my favorite tumblrs is Underground New York Public Library, because one of the first things I noticed when I moved here was that people here read. I remember, in Chicago, I once saw a woman on the Rock Island line to Joliet reading a Martin Amis novel and was nearly knocked speechless because she was reading anything smarter than a copy of Us Weekly. That just didn’t happen there. I had friends who openly laughed in my face upon seeing a copy of Anna Karenina on my coffee table. They laughed at me. it was like high school all over again.
But upon arriving here, I immediately noticed guys on late-night trains, clearly getting off closing shifts as prep-cooks or busboys who were reading Proust on the train. Proust, folks. Or Kafka. The level of public discourse is higher here; you can hear people with frankly common accents offering really insightful, well-thought-out opinions on current events every night on NY1 at 7 pm on the call-in show. For whatever reasons, that simply is not done where I lived before. Smart somehow isn’t polite in the suburbs from which I came. Here, it’s a point of pride.
What all this has taught me is that we all have more potential than we think. Ambitions, lives are sparked by simple things. We find the right book, whether someone gives it to us or we find it on our own, and our imaginations sieze the chance and run wild. Our souls are free. Ideas let that happen.
Sharing books helps this to happen. We live our lives half in public, half in private. Others see us reading, and we share books with others. There is more than one way to give a book, and to privilege any of these ways of sharing over another would be wrong. I’m truly honored to collect these stories, and my only ambition in this project is to inspire others to share more freely. Read. Be seen reading. Push beloved books on others. That is all.
Another new town. We had been moving since we got married, and on our 5th house or so, with two little ones in tow. But this was to be the final move, and I was excited. But lonely. So the school yard where my five year old was starting school was to be the venue where I would have to try and branch out and actually meet people, as much for my children’s sake as my own.
Meeting a mum of my little boy’s friend, we chit chatted every morning, and found we both had a love of literature and she often shared books. I don’t own many books myself, so when she offered to let me borrow a book she had really enjoyed, I jumped at the chance. You see, I did my MA in Literature, I studied English to Degree level. It sort of killed my love of reading. So I find it hard now to select a story, suspicious and judging every title. I tend to stick to biographies now because they are real life. No work of fiction really made me ‘feel’ anymore.
And so, I was handed Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours and I fell hard. I wrapped myself up that book and didn’t come out until I was done. Did people actually write like this? After all, I had wanted to write, but how could I replicate anything close to this? How could anyone? Her talent just jumped off the page for me… I was enthralled, impressed, in love with literature again.
I read it over a weekend and Monday morning I returned the book, smile wide over my face, thanking this mum. Because it reminded me of something - of the purpose of literature and fiction, something I had stopped believing in. Stories unite us. they bring us in from the cold, they give us a conversation. They teach us that what we live day to day doesn’t have to be all that we experience. That standing in the rain, waiting for our kids, we have somewhere exciting, deep and rich to be later that’s just for us, a moment for ourselves once we are done being available to everyone else.
My mother and I have never been close. Growing up I was extremely introverted and her short temper caused her to push me harder and harder to be the daughter she wished I was. I spent most of my time reading, cut off from everything else in my life. The more I did, the more angry she became, and the more angry she became, the more I shut myself off. It was a vicious cycle that lasted until I ran away from her. Once a year though I think she would take the time to examine our relationship. When I got older every year from Christmas she would buy me one book. While the gesture seemed like a peace offering and an attempt at understanding me, to me it only affirmed how little we knew one another. I never read any of the books she gave me. They were also books below my reading level, a random volume from a series I had never heard of or just a symbol of something she wished I could be.
After I moved out she attempted it again. I opened Wicked Christmas morning sitting around the tree with my younger brother. I felt like crying, but I couldn’t decide if it was from relief or disappointment. For the first time ever she managed to offer a little piece of me, and not what she thought I was. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I already owned the book, or that I preferred the alternate cover. I faked surprise and excitement at the gift and told her I was looking forward to reading it, but inside I knew we were too late in understanding one another. She never gave me another book after that.
She’s given me so many books that I can’t even begin to count them. She gave me my first book, and a multitude of books after that.
She read them to me, and when I was old enough to read them by myself, she helped me read the words I did not know.
But there was one book my mom gave me that changed my life. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling.
She brought it home from the bookstore for me when I was eight years old. I’m sure she expected it to be just like all the other books I read back then. I would read it over the course of a few days or weeks, and it would go on my bookshelf, nice and neat and tidy, but I probably wouldn’t talk about it again.
My mom didn’t know it would become as much a part of me as the blood in my veins.
I read the book in days, and it was all I could talk about. I took it to the dinner table with me. I splashed spaghetti sauce on the pages, because I couldn’t put it down long enough to finish my dinner. My mom, being the smart woman she is, went back to the bookstore a few days later to get the next one in the series.
I devoured it just as quickly. She brought home the third, and I flew through it.
I had to wait awhile for the fourth to be released, so what did I do with my time?
I re-read the three I had. I couldn’t put them down; they almost never spent more than a few weeks on my shelf at a time. The story was so much more than just a story, and soon it became part of my life. It shaped who I am. It taught me about life and prepared me for what was to come.
My mom brought home a book for me, but she gave me something to love.
She’s given me so many books since then. And others have given me books too. I’m a reader, and books are my perfect gift. But no one…no one…has given me a book like that since I was 8 years old.
My father and I had a complicated relationship when I was little (although I guess that can be said of all fathers & sons). He was an outdoorsman, a carpenter and craftsman and engineer, while I was always wrapped up in worlds of my own imagination - music, books, games, etc. It’s not to say that we didn’t like the same things - he loved words and I always enjoyed being outside - but I think he had trouble understanding how it was that I’d rather sit and read a book than create something or go for a hike.
One time, on a family trip, I had finished all of the books I’d brought with me and desperately wanted some new Star Wars book. He told me that he’d buy it for me so long as I also read a book of his choosing. Fearing the worst, I begrudgingly accepted this bribe and he revealed the Star Wars book (already purchased) and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I was on a train when he gave it to me and I devoured it, although I don’t think I understood much of it. Mostly, I just wanted to get to the Star Wars book. But that moment of train-bound adventure stuck with me, faintly but firmly.
Years later, I was living in London and, on a whim, purchased a dashing new reprint of the book. I remembered nothing about it and read it in one sitting in Hyde Park. The next time I came home, I left it wrapped in brown paper in his office with a little note just said “thank you”. He found me later (reading in the living room) and asked me what it was for. I told him this story and watched as the memory came back to him - and saw other memories, memories of his own childhood, come back too.
That night, we watched the Hitchcock film and when we visited London together for my sister’s graduation years later, I took him to see the play. We both have our respective copies of the book on our desks - reminders that he and I aren’t so different after all.
We were new friends, and I was newly single. He invited me to go see Zardoz at BAM, and I thought it was a date until he got a phone call from a friend while we were buying snacks at the bodega, “Not much, you?… Yeah, we’re going to see Zardoz…. Sure, see you at the theater.” But before we went to meet up with our third wheel, he gave me a paperback copy of Homo Faber by Max Frisch, and I tucked it into my too-small handbag. A pack of teenagers ran past us on the street, and one of them boldly grabbed the book from my bag as he ran by. My companion started to chase him, but then stopped, not certain what he should do if he caught the kid. We hoped the book would actually be read, but expect that the sight of the word “homo” in the title would be enough to warrant immediate discard. We dated for a year, broke up for 6 months, a period during which I gave him Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow for his birthday, and then got back together to get married.
Will there be a follow up(or second) book to "The Books They Gave Me"?
Great question! It would be great to do a second edition—perhaps in a couple of years? We can speed the process by giving “The Books They Gave Me” to all our friends and family for the holidays this year. And their birthdays. And graduations. Or for no reason at all!