The Bane of Gift Books

My friend Susan H. was Susan G. until her second marriage and Susan H., but a different H., before the first one. Susan HGH must not have come to understand in our nearly 30 years of friendship that I will go to any length in order to avoid reading a book with an adverb in its subtitle. I opened a package from her and found a book titled “Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts,” by Charlie LeDuff. On the one hand, I was pleased Susan HGH thought of me. On the other, I groaned at the responsibility of receiving yet another book from a well-meaning friend.

“Ronald, I thought you would enjoy this,” Susan HGH penciled on the first page.

A current selection of books received as gifts, under the guard of a Danish soldier
A current selection of books received as gifts, under the guard of a Danish soldier

She also thinks Michigan is a northeastern state. I’ve never heard of Charlie LeDuff, but what I’ve just turned up about him makes me leery. Evidently, he was exiled to Detroit after a plagiarism scandal forced him out at the New York Times. A witty commentator named Dexter writes: “He’s your typical suburban detroit [sic] douchebag reporter, in this case trying to stage a comeback as a hardboiled gonzo Charles Kuralt swooping down from his safe white suburb into the dark, black city to write about all those crazy colored people and their hilariously offbeat ignorance.”

And of course there’s the matter of the lazy sounding title and its adverb “thereabouts.” It just doesn’t have the same kick as the collection of stories by another New York writer, J.D. Salinger, namely, “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor.” (What a wonderful title!) And something more: “Work and Other Sins” is 357 pages of LeDuff’s Times pieces. With the exception of those penned by Mark Twain during his Washoe days, I have no interest in reading a collection of old newspaper columns or articles.

What my benefactress, and others like her, underestimate is just how slowly I read. Ten to 12 pages per hour is my usual rate, the result of being too careful, too much like a crawling Googlebot, which indexes an entire text. It doesn’t work for me, but obsessiveness rules. Another issue is my inability to stay awake after 9.00 p.m. My eyelids close as inevitably as the “Axiom’s” airlocks in “Wall-E.” Frothy books about sports or entertainment subjects provide the rare eye-opening exceptions.

I’m currently in the third week of enjoying a Swedish mystery novel by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the wife-husband team whose detective, Martin Beck, flourished in a series during the 1960s and 1970s. Many readers would dispense with this thriller in two or three sittings. (Some people read a book a day.) My struggle with Herman Melville’s excruciatingly dull novel “The Confidence Man” extended over a three-month span early this year before I ground to a halt 80 pages from the end. My ambition of fully deconstructing this important work—the second time I’ve read it—has been cruelly thwarted.

Finishing about a dozen books a year is my reward. Other people glide through books as easily as the dog glides through a serving of Alpo Prime Cuts in Gravy. My friend Teri S. goes off on weekends to her little cottage in the woods east of Fairbanks to consume a book or two while watching the river ice break up. She sends many thoughtful selections my way. She must really have dug William Manchester’s “A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age.” It does look enjoyable. Problem is, I’m bogged down at page 154 of “A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen,” by Joe Jackson.

Laura in Texas gets quite a kick out of David Sedaris and sent one of his collections. I’ve perused a few Sedaris offerings in the New Yorker. Maybe it’s because one needs to have at least a 0.10 percent reading of National Public Radio in one’s bloodstream, but I consider him as engaging and hilarious as ditchwater.

Laura also favored me with a copy of “Running with Scissors,” by Augusten Burroughs, but painful childhood memories are in ample supply inside my own head. I seek escape by reading about a couple of imaginative boys floating their raft past a town “peacefully sleeping, beyond the vague vast sweep of star-gemmed water,” as Mark Twain put it in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

They come from everywhere. One benefactress in Denmark supplied two illustrated volumes of H.C. Andersen’s fairy tales. Another Dane gifted me with the fat little “Design Directory: Scandinavia.” The latter is occasionally useful as a reference; some day I’ll get to the tales. For a few years I hosted a biennial luncheon for art directors and the production editor from Automobile Magazine, and for my 50th birthday one of them gave me a cookbook devoted to cookie recipes. Nearly four years later, I’ve just had my first real spin through those pages: oatmeal-raisin looks like a good starting point.

Even my dear subversive wife lays the occasional book on me. The anthology of stories by contemporary Nebraska writers delighted this native Nebraskan until the actual reading was undertaken. Opening up with three miserable tales about white trash forces the concession that, indeed, every place has its seamy side. But why dwell on it? And what’s ahead in the next 340 pages? Are there the wise, understated, admirable Nebraskans? A random sampling from an upcoming story yields this nugget about a man watching a horror movie during a party: “…Gary, lost in his own private world of the macabre, is listening for the next rising moan, the next victim, when Linda, joint in one hand, vodka tonic in the other, tells Gary that she’s pregnant.” As badly as I yearn to know how things work out for them, I find myself—not for the first time—with Italo Calvino’s “Cosmicomics” open over my knee.

Now for the glaring contradiction. Coming soon to the Knoxville address of Andy and Jamie is Wilma Dykeman’s “The French Broad,” her cultural history of the Appalachian river of that name, along with a bonus guidebook to North Carolina’s mountains. I acquired them a few years ago in Asheville. Jamie’s parents live not far away from there. Good stewardship will likely prevail, and the books will make their way into the hands of someone who will cherish them.

And now I seek a recipient for “Roadside Geology of Idaho.” The title’s narrow appeal could be widened with a Sharpie: “Roadside Geology of Idaho and Thereabouts.”


3 thoughts on “The Bane of Gift Books

  1. Our mailbox is going on lockdown until further notice. If too late, I’ll source a Suzuki/Honda Haynes manual for you. Light reading, lots of photos, the occasional inaccuracies but rewarding.

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