books | March 03, 2011

Margaret Atwood on Why People Love Giving Books as Gifts

Author Margaret Atwood needs no introduction. She’s simply one of Canada’s — one of the world’s — best-known champions of literary culture. In a recent op-ed for The Daily Telegraph, Atwood praises Unesco’s World Book Night and muses on the extraordinary power of books to connect people.

From The Daily Telegraph:
What is it that makes books things people love to give? Perhaps it’s because they’re so personal. “Tell me what you like and I will tell you who you are,” John Ruskin famously once said, and it’s true. We are what we eat, but we are also what we read.

Many a pick-up has been made through books – I know this because men shamefacedly tell me they’ve pretended to read my books in order to strike up relationships with ladies – and many a partnership has gone down in flames over the issue of what the significant other has been stuffing into his or her head via the printed page.

So when we give someone a book, we are also delivering a complex message. It may be: “I love this book and I love you enough to share it with you.” It may be, a little more bossily: “You need to read this.” It may be: “I understand you and know you will like this.” It may be: “I respect you.” It may just be: “I see you.”

Books are frozen voices, in the same way that musical scores are frozen music. The score is a way of transmitting the music to someone who can play it, releasing it into the air where it can once more be heard. And the black alphabet marks on the page represent words that were once spoken, if only in the writer’s head. They lie there inert until a reader comes along and transforms the letters into living sounds. The reader is the musician of the book: each reader may read the same text, just as each violinist plays the same piece, but each interpretation is different.

So when you give a well-loved book to someone else, it is above all an act of trust: you are trusting the recipient not to massacre the book in his or her interpretation of it.

Read more about speaker Margaret Atwood