The Books They Gave Me

In which we reflect on books given us by loved ones.


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.

This is new.

He gave me a book. It’s a new kind of book, a new gift. It’s his own work; an ebook of his own poems, lovingly arranged, carefully composed around a theme: music. The mixtape.

The first story I ever wrote for this blog was about music. It’s not on this blog anymore; you’ll have to grab a copy of the book to read it (page 2). And here we come around again, two years after that first gift. This time, the giver compiled fifteen of his own poems about music. And pop, and camp, and fame, and what songs do to us and the way we fall in love with them and the artists who created them the same way we fall in love with books and the authors who wrote them.

He made me an ebook, a test trial so he could figure out how to publish in iBooks. And maybe this will amount to something more than a trial run. We don’t yet know.

These songs narrate me: “I am human, and I need to be loved.” “I wear black on the outside, because black is [sometimes] how I feel on the inside.” “Girl afraid: where do his intentions lay?” Just the same, whenever I do my hair for a night out, I flash back to Margaret’s single backwards curl in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Every bath I take is Esther’s deep, hot soak in The Bell Jar.Richard Yates’ adept portrayal of April Wheeler’s swirling frustration gave power to my own flight from suburban stagnation. 

The songs and the books, they are the same. They offer us the same balms in different flavors. Poems ride the line down the middle—lyric words never meant to be sung, except in our own hearts, our own voices. 

A book of poems is a mixtape; a collection of songs you get to sing in your own head. This is what he gave me.