REVIEW: The Gifts of Reading – Robert MacFarlane


Author: Robert MacFarlane (twitter)

UK Publisher: Penguin

Genre: non-fiction, essays

Buy now: ebook | paperback

This is an unusual piece to review, for a number of reasons. Published by PRH, exclusively for sale in independent bookshops, it is a personal essay discussing the value of books as gifts.

Robert MacFarlane is a very warm writer, and the essay is a gentle and emotive read, talking about what receiving gifts of books, and giving gifts of books, has meant to him. He brackets the essay with stories related to his friendship with Don, alongside whom he taught English Literature in China. Don continually gifts him books, even though they are hard to obtain in China, and expensive. His collection builds, and when he eventually returns to the UK to study his PhD, he and Don stay in contact.

MacFarlane reflects on how those shared books strengthened his relationship with Don, and also how he then passed many of those on as gifts to other people. Some friends, some strangers. He has several copies of books ready to give out, so he always has the right book ready to give to someone. But as well as considering books as gifts from the position of the giver and receiver, he also spends a moment thinking about what it is like to be an author, knowing his books will be given as gifts – a third strand which most people wouldn’t consider.

I found this a really moving, heartwarming piece. I always give books as gifts – this last Christmas my husband got two books, my best friend got a book, my sister-in-law got a book, my brother-in-law got a book, my brother-in-law’s wife got a book (sister-in-law-in-law?), my mother-in-law got a book, my father-in-law got a book, my brother got a book. My nieces got fairy wings, but only because there are two of them and I didn’t think they’d want to share the book I wanted to get them. Honestly, I’d be tempted to get the ‘It Might Be a Book‘ wrapping paper, except it would be rather stating the obvious. It’s from me, of course it’s a book.

Perhaps to date myself, whilst I was at University, I worked for a couple of years at a local branch of Blockbuster. The hours were antisocial, the pay was terrible, the managers were useless. But it was probably the best job I ever had. I got ten free rentals a week, and got paid to talk about films with anyone who came through the door. I got to build relationships with my regulars, learn what they liked and could recommend good films, or terrible films.  

My favourite was a large, Scottish man called Doug. He always turned up, towering over me, clad in his motorcycle leathers, and we would talk for ages about films before he got whatever deal I needed to sell the most of that week. Our relationship was cemented when I paid for him to take out Wall-E in addition to his other films, because I was adamant he would enjoy it, and he was sceptical. He came back the next week and paid me back the rental fee, and then used Wall-E as a benchmark for other films. “Because,” he would say, “it was a nice love story. And everyone likes a nice love story.”

One day he came in and gave me a wrapped present, handing it to me with nothing more than “FAO – you,” before he continued browsing. Inside the present was a copy of The Time Traveller’s Wife. I absorbed that book. It wholly mesmerised me, and was the first book since The Incredible Journey which made me cry.

There was something so wonderful about that gift, I still remember it. I was devastated when Doug stopped coming into the store, one of many locals disgruntled by the corporate changes which meant that their service became less personal, and they were constantly being asked to pre-order game consoles which they didn’t want. Previously, the way it had worked meant that our regulars, our reliable customers, could come to know us in a way that we were able to confidently lay down money to recommend films they would like; and they could know our preferences based on what we sold them. Doug was a measure of the performance of our Blockbuster, and when Doug stopped coming in, it was a sign that the end was nigh. I left in December 2010, the same year the company filed for bankruptcy the first time.

MacFarlane’s essay reminded me of how I felt when Doug gave me that copy of The Time Traveller’s Wife. The unexpected joy I got from opening it, the way it clicked so well because Doug knew I would like it. There is an intimacy to the giving of the perfect book – of matching the right book to the right person. It shows a shared understanding, a warmth and consideration, and a knowledge of someone that you know they will spend the time enjoying this work.

I thought this was a beautiful essay, and it touched me, reminding me of the gifts I have been given, and the gifts I have given, and told me about the third strand – the gifts which have been written.


Rating: 5/5 – this is not a traditional work, so it is difficult to rate like other books on here, but it is heartfelt and warm, and lovely.

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