The Books that Keep on Giving

Turns out giving books as gifts—or, really, lending them and never getting them back—might be the best thing we can do for each other.

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In Robert Macfarlane's new essay, "The Gifts of Reading," the celebrated British naturalist and author extols the many virtues in the giving of books, and also the reading of them. "The gift which has spoken so commandingly to my soul," he writes, "has been a printed book."

The 5000-word piece, packaged into book form itself, is being sold exclusively at independent bookshops across the U.K. in celebration of Independent Bookshop Week 2016. His charming essay manages to achieve, seemingly without effort, everything that good writing should. It prompts in the reader a joy in the language itself, but also encourages you to act upon what he writes about: to walk where he walks, to read what he reads.

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He recounts an old friendship with an American named Don, whom he met while teaching English in Beijing a decade ago. Don, a gregarious man from San Francisco, would urge upon him books he had loved, among them the legendary British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts (1977), which would go on to inspire Macfarlane's own writing. "When I first read A Time of Gifts," he writes, "I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles."

And it prompted him to follow in Fermor's footsteps: through countryside and over mountains, and later recount them in books of his own: The Wild Places (2007), The Old Ways (2012).

Macfarlane treasures books bought for him, and cites Lewis Hyde's seminal 1983 text, The Gift, a book which investigated the psychology behind the giving of gifts, and how by doing so we encourage others to act similarly, thereby elevating the world into, ideally, a better place. Macfarlane writes about how his friendship with Don endured until it could endure no longer, all the while marked by their shared love of words, and a good old-fashioned, physical book. No Kindles for them.

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Whenever he gives gifts himself now, they are almost invariably books, foisting his favorites in the hope they will connect with others as they have him: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain.

He once left a copy of Nan Shepherd's book on a train and, he recalls, "cursed when I realized I'd done so—then took comfort from the knowledge that a book lost by someone is a book found by someone else."

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