Books make the best gifts. In many cases no actual goods need change hands. You can just tell someone about a book, or loan a book with the promise of an eventual return–the knowledge becomes the gift. Whether given for keeps or loaned, introducing someone to a book you love can be an intensely personal and affecting experience. It can also be super-casual. This can vary even between the individuals involved in the exchange.
The most profound book-gift given me came from someone I did not know. This person gave me N. Scott Momaday’s In The Presence Of The Sun through a mutual friend. While I will always regret not knowing the giver personally, reading the book over the last twenty-one years has given me insight into who she is, and Mr. Momaday’s poetry and prose still speaks to me with a special voice. Take his tales of the Shields, those accoutrements of battle that signify so much more than war. “Bote-talee’s Shield” ranks as my favorite piece in this entire book:Bote-talee found the Spider Woman. In the early morning he went swimming. When he reached the bank he looked directly up into the sun. There, just before his eyes, was a spider’s web. It was a luminous, glistening shield. Bote-talee looked at it for a long time. It was so beautiful that he wanted to cry. He wondered if it were strong as well as beautiful. He flung water on it, heavy water, again and again, but it remained whole and glistened all the more. Then a sun spider entered upon the web. “Spider Woman,” Bote-talee said, “Will you give me this perfect shield?” “Bote-talee,” said Spider Woman, “this is your shield.”
Drawn from Kiowa legends and oral tradition, this poem says so much. For me it says the things we want the most are sometimes already ours, but we just don’t see them.
When we share a book, whether by simply dropping a favorite title in casual conversation, or inscribing the inside cover of a treasured volume and giving it as a gift, we tell the recipient something about ourselves. Sometimes that thing is plain and small, but sometimes it means so much more. In either case, the sharing marks a gift well given.