• Essay on THE GIFT by Lewis Hyde (the Guardian)

    From the Guardian - A Book to Share series

    I’ve often thought of books as a gift and the act of reading as opening that gift: the sense of the unexpected, the feeling of having been enriched by something priceless. Rummaging in the local library as a child felt like rootling through a treasure chest, not knowing what jewel of a story I would come across next to transport me away. By borrowing and returning books in the library, I developed a strong sense that stories were meant to be shared. They are like living, breathing creatures that gain life from being passed on, growing an existence in another person’s consciousness.

    So what a delight to read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, and find it unfolding into gifts wrapped within gifts. Hailed by Margaret Atwood as “a masterpiece” and a “classic study of gift-giving and its relationship to art”, this passionate and perspicacious paean to creativity has been acquiring new generations of fans ever since it was published in 1983. When I recently bought a copy as a Christmas gift, the bookseller’s eyes lit up.

    Subtitled “How the creative spirit transforms the world”, The Gift is fascinating on the power of art to take us beyond ourselves. It is also an invocation to use the gifts we have been given. “It is the talent which is not in use that is lost or atrophies, and to bestow one of our creations is the surest way to invoke the next,” writes Hyde, who cites Homer’s Hymn to Hermes. “Hermes invents the first musical instrument, the lyre, and gives it to his brother, Apollo, whereupon he is immediately inspired to invent a second musical instrument, the pipes. The implication is that giving the first creation away makes the second one possible. Bestowal creates that empty place into which new energy may flow. The alternative is petrification, writer’s block, ‘the flow of life backed up’.”

    This particular gift of a book sat unopened for many months, gathering dust as it was locked away in a storage space I rented along with a number of my other possessions during a peripatetic period of my existence. Quite some time after receiving it, I brushed away the dust and turned its pages: “Gifts pass from hand to hand: they endure through such transmission, as every time a gift is given it is enlivened and regenerated through the new spiritual life it engenders both in the giver and in the receiver”, writes Atwood, in the thought-provoking introduction to the new edition.​

    How is a creative artist to survive in a society dominated by market exchange? Hyde describes how he himself first came to the book’s topic as he tried to make his way as a poet and translator: “Inevitably the money question comes up; labours such as mine are notoriously non remunerative, and the landlord is not interested in your book of translations the day the rent falls due”. This theme struck a chord with me as I toiled to make ends meet as a freelance writer, moving between rented rooms.

    The book also tackles age-old questions about the individual in a community (“If someone opens a door for you, do you owe that person a thank you? Should you spend Christmas with your family if you’re trying to solidify an identity of your own?”) and large philosophical issues (“How much of yourself can you give away before evaporating?”).​ Atwood’s introduction to the latest edition also considers the contemporary age’s thorny issues such as “the tendency of the internet to demand that everything on it be somehow ‘free’”.​

    The Gift would be a good present at any time of year, but particularly this month as we frantically go about our last-minute shopping. At its heart is the idea of reciprocity: “You may keep your Christmas present,” Hyde writes at one point, “but it ceases to be a gift in the true sense unless you have given something else away.” He frequently returns to the idea that “a gift eventually circles back toward its source”. A section is devoted to the poet Walt Whitman, who believed “the gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him - it cannot fail…”.

    I love the book’s interweaving of wisdom from different ages and places, from ancient folktales and fairytales to modern-day stories, which sets our present-day behaviour in a wide historical perspective. So much literature is about yearning, absence, loss, that it is intriguing to read about its opposite: giving abundantly, even when we think we lack. Many folktales are about the virtue of sharing, the vice of selfishness, but there is also a rich tradition of poetry about wanting to give, yet having only immaterial things to offer (and indeed the invaluable quality of those immaterial gifts). “Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths… I would spread the cloths under your feet / But I, being poor, have only my dreams; / I have spread my dreams under your feet.”, wrote Yeats.

    I would share The Gift not only with anyone grappling with the question of how to balance a creative passion with making a living, anyone interested in life and literature, but also with “all thinking humans” (Lewis’s original intended audience).

    In a year of cuts to public libraries and the arts, I would also recommend this book to our current Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer and everyone else with power over the public purse strings.

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