©Steve Tollefson, 2014

©Steve Tollefson, 2014

Now that another holiday season has passed, I have a confession to make, an ugly secret to reveal:  I don’t like to be given books as presents. Give me socks or a big-screen TV, but not a book.  It’s not that I don’t like books: I love them, but I don’t like your choices.

I’m sure this socio-pathological condition stems from a certain deep adolescent trauma: when I was 16, one of my older brothers (I see no reason to protect him at this point: it was my brother Greg) gave me a big—huge, really—coffee table book for Christmas: The Vineland Map and Tartar Relation. This gift was not in response to my unending fascination with New World Maps of Questionable Authenticity, but a result of my brother’s being forced to order a book from a book-of-the-month club he belonged to.

That book has tagged along with our family through any number of moves, and now sits happily in my brother’s basement.  No one has ever read it, but we can’t get rid of it. The gift book that wouldn’t die.

There are three categories of books-as-gifts: Christmas coffee-table books, of which I have many that I haven’t looked at for years; random books that acquaintances think—for no apparent reason—I will like; and books related to my profession. Because I teach writing, have written several grammar books, and write about books, people assume that I want books about writing, grammar, and books. I’ve been given several copies of Eats Shoots and Leaves, by Lynn Truss. Why would I want to read someone else’s lesser but vastly more successful grammar book?  I just found the little bit I read to be irritating.  Do doctors get a lot of Doctor Books?  (Reminds me that a family friend thought Dr. Zhivago was a Dr. Spock for Russian parents.) Do mail carriers get Antonio Skameta’s Il Postino every Christmas from their customers?

I like to pick my own books. My reading habits are, I hope, no more peculiar than anyone else’s, but they are still idiosyncratic. I love bookstores for the serendipity I experience: hey, that’s just the book I want, even though I wasn’t looking for it.  I resort to online buying only if I have exhausted every other option.  For six months, I’ve been looking for a novel called Wide Open Town about Butte, Montana. I could have ordered it on Amazon or ABE or Powell’s and have finished it by now.  But I’d just like to find it around here. So I’m a bookstore prowler.

Then, too, as a denizen of a university, I’m always trying to catch up on books I never read. (I’ve faked my way through many a reception and cocktail party: “War and Peace, yes, quite a read, eh? Especially the war part.”)  Not too many years ago, I was reading Madame Bovary in the lounge car on the train when a woman stopped and said, “A wonderful book. I assume you’re rereading it.” (emphasis hers). Well, no, I had just never gotten around to it, and now I was finally interested in reading it. So, at any given time it may strike me that I really should read something by Gore Vidal (I am currently reading The City and the Pillar), or that, because it was there on the shelf, Tolstoy’s The Cossacks might suffice in lieu of one of his longer novels. (I feel like I’m saying too much out loud about my reading habits.)

Often a book review, or a reference to some now-obscure but-once-important book will catch my interest, or a book I’ve heard of all my life, but never read. A colleague was teaching Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and spoke of its charms so convincingly that I found a copy, and loved it.  Tell me about a book, and I might get interested in it; but don’t jump the gun and buy it for me. My current mood, the time of year—and probably what Sign of the Zodiac the moon is in and the amount of ozone in the air—everything affects what I’m going to be interested in.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the effort that book givers make.  I do.  But when someone gives me a book because I’ve expressed an interest in a subject (for instance, I’ve been on a history-of-the-west kick for a while), that book is often just off from the angle that I’m interested in.  It’s like what Mark Twain says about word choice: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between lightning bug and the lightening.”  I can hear you now: “But that book might open up something new.”  I know that’s true. So in addition to being crabby I’m also, I think, narrow-minded.

The thing is, and the thing that makes me rotten is, that I like to give books.  If I read something I deeply love, I will often buy used copies when I come across them and hand them out to people I think will like them.  This strikes me as incredibly snotty:  please don’t give me a book because you can’t possibly be attuned to my taste, but here’s one I know you will like. I don’t intend it that way; I intend it the way that people who give me books intend it. Here’s a wonderful book that I’d like others to enjoy.  But I will say in my own defense that when I hand over a book, I nearly always say, “Read a little, and if you like it, please keep it.  If you don’t, give it back.”

I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.

Besides my certainly misplaced pride in my own reading habits, my main objection to a book as a gift is the tremendous obligation that comes with it.  You are expected to report back, joyfully, on the book. It’s like wearing that godawful sweater that your otherwise sweet aunt knitted.

You can’t dispose of such books easily. Regifting is tricky: if you don’t read the book, you can’t know who should receive it.  Selling them back to a bookstore is also fraught:  you might have missed the personal and touching inscription inside the book, even worse if they’ve gone to trouble of having the author inscribe it to you.  I suppose I’m the only person who has ever taken a razor blade and removed the flyleaf with the personal note before I’ve tried to sell the book.

But I am also completely inconsistent.  The feeling of obligation has led me to wonderful books. A few years ago I was given Out Stealing Horses (Per Petterson) by a friend with a background similar to mine. My first reaction was “ugh” but I felt in this case I had no choice, so I plunged ahead.  I love that book, and recommend it all the time. My brother Greg (the same one) recently gave me The Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess and I became obsessed with him–I read every book by and about this kid who disappeared in Utah in 1935. But these are the exceptions: on my bookshelf is the graveyard of dusty hulks of many other gift books that I probably will never read.

Is there a lesson here?  Yes:  that one probably shouldn’t write about things like this, since I have now surely alienated many friends and family.  But seriously, those books you gave me are the exceptions. I really loved them.

©Steve Tollefson, 2014

Steve Tollefson, BAWP 1978, has been teaching writing at UC Berkeley since 1973. His story “Duboce Park, 1969” was recently included in the anthology, California Prose Directory 2013: New Writing from the Golden State (Outpost19, San Francisco). 

2 Responses to “Don’t Cut That Flyleaf! by Steve Tollefson”

  1. jane juska Says:

    Perhaps we could arrange a trade, my gift books for yours.

    Your writing always makes me feel good. thanks.

  2. John Levine Says:

    I told you how much I enjoyed this piece, Steve. Didn’t I?

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