It’s my birthday! And, because it’s my birthday and I get to make the rules, today I’m going to tell you about some of my favourites out of all the book gifts I’ve received over the years.
My parents bought me this copy of the Complete Works when I was, I don’t know, seven? Eight? I’d learnt a short passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for school, thanks to a very encouraging teacher, and I loved it. My amazing parents responded to this by buying me the Complete Works, which just goes to show how brilliant they are: what an indication of being supported in my enthusiasms and pursuits, rather than being teased (because really, what kind of seven year old likes to read Shakespeare?). I dived straight in and read A Merchant of Venice and Two Gentlemen of Verona, though mercifully I didn’t understand either at the time. I just loved the way the words sounded. My copy has travelled with me from home to home ever since, and is now thoroughly battered, with flowers pressed into the pages and moving passages highlighted during moments of teenage angst. True story: when I was 13 and my first proper teenage crush asked my best friend out, I learnt Helena’s “Call you me fair?” rant, and performed it dramatically in my room. Over and over and over (this provides further proof of my parents’ great patience, in that they didn’t kick me out). Helena’s melodramatics proved to be a source of great comfort to me during my own. It is one of very few books that I cannot imagine not hanging onto for the rest of my life.
This completely gorgeous edition of Just So Stories was a present from my brother a few years ago. I’m sure it must have been Christmas or my birthday, because he is not prone to sending me books at random, but I don’t remember it arriving–it’s become far more precious to me in the last couple of years. My brother is very good at presents, but even by his standards this was a great one. The first time I remember digging it out was during a pretty grim and horrible season in my life. I began reading these stories out loud to myself at 3am when afflicted with insomnia. They are some of the same stories that my parents read to us both when we were small, and as I read those incredibly familiar lines, it somehow seemed as though I was back in that warm, snug room in which I grew up, hearing Dad do all the different voices, all the pauses for dramatic effect. (The Cat that Walks by Himself was a particular favourite of his. That cat is imbued with a personality that lives on, 20+ years later). This book comes out, reliably, whenever I’m not having a very happy time, but it’s also a fantastic thing to read on a cold winter’s evening, with hot chocolate. It carries a great deal of the magic of childhood in its pages, but the fact that it was from my brother–who gave it to me with the exact intention of evoking safe, happy memories–makes it all the more special.
This is what got me thinking about the subject in the first place, really. I was very sad to hear of the death of Terry Pratchett last week. Unlike most of Pratchett’s most loyal fans, I didn’t come to him in my teens, but as a student. At the time, one of my housemates was a Discworld fan, and had been trying to convinced me to read it. I declined, due to the fact that a) I had not been allowed to read the Discworld novels when I was younger, as I am pretty easily scared & my parents thought they were much darker than they really are, and b) I was suspicious of the lurid, ridiculous covers. One day, I came home, and a book was sitting on the coffee table, addressed to me. My housemate had been sorting his books and discovered that he had a second copy of Reaper Man. He bequeathed it to me in an last-ditch attempt to get me interested. Of course, I couldn’t keep refusing to read it after that. I’m so grateful that he won me over, because I absolutely love the lurid, ridiculous world contained within those covers. The Discworld, which I had scorned, turned out to be the most fabulously engrossing place. It’s somewhere I visit when I need to laugh. I must have read Reaper Man itself three or four times, and I lend my copy out (and demand it back) because I want other people to love it as much as I do. Hogfather goes in my suitcase at Christmas. Maskerade and Mort have both made me laugh when I most needed to do so; then, after that, they often end up surprisingly touching, so that I can go from laughing to tears in my eyes startlingly quickly.
Of course, I’ve been given lots (and lots, and lots) of books over the course of my life, but these three are probably my favourite book gifts so far. It’s partly about the people who gave them to me, all of whom I am pretty fond of; it’s partly because the books themselves are so brilliant to read. There is something else, though, something more intangible. Some of my love for these books is to do with the way I first encountered or re-encountered them, my own story as I relate to the story. For that reason, I’m curious–what are your favourite ever book gifts? Are there stories behind those, too?