The Books They Gave Me

books they gaveThe Short Version: Drawn from the remarkably successful Tumblr of the same name, Jen Adams here curates stories of books given and received.  All of the stories are anonymous and tell of loves and friendships somehow, in some way, defined by the gift of a book.  They range from funny to heartbreaking – each of them, remarkably poignant.

The Review: I am a book-giver.  I think it started when, as a heartbroken senior in high school, I was watching the first season of Battlestar Galactica and Laura Roslin tells Bill Adama that books should be given, never lent.  This appealed to me in large part because I’d lent several books that never came back to me but also there was something poignant about the thought of giving a book – it was more than just a recommendation, it was an opportunity to make a personal statement.  So now I give books, always inscribed and always with a sense of purpose.

At the same time, I find that I very rarely receive books.  Or, when I do, it’s from my family for birthday or Christmas or what-have-you – and it’s because I’ve asked for them.  I have a never-ending to-read list.  But there are occasions when I’ve received a book and it results in exactly the feeling I hope to inspire in my giving: a sense of connection to a particular place, time, person, feeling.

So when I saw this blog start up over a year ago, I was enthralled.  Another one of those moments of “hey! people like me!”, I guess.  It also came at an auspicious moment as I was given a book shortly after I started to read the blog that I would, later, submit as a story – a story that would make it into this collection.  I won’t tell you which one it is, although loyal readers of THIS blog will maybe be able to figure it out.  So I was even more excited to see the physical copy: there, immortalized in print and tucked deep into the book, was a story from my life.  A handful of sentences that brought back the visceral feelings of a whole year ago as though it was happening right now.  And it was hidden, surrounded by these wonderful other stories of doomed love affairs just like mine.

Of course, not all of them are stories of doom and gloom.  The happy tales of books that spawned lasting, loving relationships are here too.  And not all of them are about romance – some are about friends, some about family, some about even educational settings.  But I think they’re all about love.  We all love reading, the contributors to this book – and even more than that we love the gift of receiving a physical item, with all the thought (or lack thereof) that goes into that moment of transaction.

I was unexpectedly affected by the stories in this book, when combined together in this package.  You could easily let this book be something coffee-table, something you read a few excerpts from now and then – but I think taking it all in one go (as I did today, during a respite from the long slog that is Bleak House) creates an interesting Sunday afternoon.  I found myself sometimes burning through several stories in a burst, sometimes stopping at the end of one to gaze out over the East River.  Some ended with a laugh, some with a “huh”, others with that silent sort of negative-breath that denotes sudden, momentary, strong melancholy.  A few times, as I turned the page, my pulse would quicken – seeing a few (just a brief few) books that I had given and wondering “….could it have been me?” or seeing a book and story that made me think of a friend’s story that had gone quite similarly and wondering, too, if I knew the writer.  I’m sure plenty of people had the same experience of reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as the writer here did – but also, maybe it was my friend.  I’m dying to ask her but at the same time I find the mystery kind of lovely.

More than anything, I found myself nostalgic.  I was reflecting on books I’ve given – ones I’ve heard responses on, ones that have never gone acknowledged.  There’s one particular individual in my life who gets a book from me on their birthday every year (and sometimes more often than that) and we usually get round to talking about most of them – but I still wonder what they thought of (or if they ever read) some of them.  But I also can’t remember half of the books I’ve given them, because our tastes run so similar and we share so many recommendations that half the time they’re gifts and half the time they’re things I’ve suggested.  It gets complicated (which also defines our relationship).  And I’ve spent time thinking about some of the books that have been given to me.  I even submitted another story to the blog, this one entirely different, based on a memory that sprang up during my reading.

Rating: 5+ out of 5.  There’s something special about this book and not just that it holds my print debut.  Some people, those who are not givers of books (whatever that may mean: lenders, borrowers, library people, ereader people, etc), may not find it so lovely.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’m just sentimental about my books and what each of them means.  And there are tons of other people who feel the same way – and they’re all right here, sharing their stories.  There is nothing more wonderful than that.

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