Do words matter?

Books make the best gifts as they can provoke or placate. And they are more meaningful than trinkets that hog home space.

AFTER listlessly picking through trinkets and toys for years, I finally gave up. As gifts for friends and family, I will give away only plants and books from now on.

Enough of the needless, sometimes pointless, objects that not only clutter other people’s private spaces, but emit endless, irritating sounds. More often than not, they are discarded not long after the wrapping and ribbons are binned.

Gifts must be meaningful, I believe, to both giver and receiver. Yet I have to admit that my new take on gift-buying is a tad indulgent. Just because I enjoy watching plants grow and flourish, does not mean that others will appreciate a potted orchid that steadies the mind with its string of blooms in many shades of white.

Similarly, choosing a book takes time. Finding the singularly attractive cover and paper; the white pages filled with other people’s dark or bright words and thoughts that provoke or placate; a trusted author, someone whose works you’ve always enjoyed or grown up with. These considerations make a purchase memorable. More so when the book is tied to a memory, place or feeling.

In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, the heroine Liesel’s first book theft is linked to the memory of her brother’s death. She picks up a worn copy of The Gravedigger’s Handbook, lying in the snow next to the hastily-dug grave.

She was unable to read, but that didn’t matter. Nor what the book was about. For the thief stealing her first book, it is all about the memory that the book holds for her. And when she holds it herself, she always remembers the last time she saw her brother – and mother.

Over the course of this excellent book (later sensitively adapted to screen by Michael Petroni, of the The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader fame), Liesel learns to read. And her life-long love of books and words stays with her throughout her upbringing in a grim Germany in the grip of World War II.

She salvages books from public burnings, as well as from the library of the mayor’s wife. She even keeps a refugee hiding in her home alive with the words she reads aloud to him. She builds her own thesaurus on the basement’s walls. And it is these words that she cherishes so much, that save her from death and, eventually, herself.

You might imagine that words come easy to writers. After all, that is what they do, isn’t it? Stringing words together, coherently transmitting idea or vision to a reader. Most writers, however, would say no.

Zusak couldn’t have put it more succinctly in his novel – in the words of his heroine, “I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

That’s why I think books make the best gifts. It is mostly with words that humans have communicated down the centuries, despite the advances in technology and the advent of shortcuts like messaging with smileys. While many still adhere to the belief that a picture paints a thousand words – a phrase originally coined in 1921 – words are never going to disappear.

Just as it was heartening to read that the founder of Britain’s Waterstones, Tim Waterstone, believes that traditional printed books will still dominate the reading market with the sales-proven decline of the “e-reader revolution”.

He spoke at the recent Oxford Literary Festival event, “The Future Of Publishing”. Seemingly, printed words do, and will continue to, dominate our lives, whether telling a story, selling an idea or simply making oneself matter.

Another author, Edmund de Waal, who is also one of Britain’s best ceramicists, stunned the reading world in 2010 when he published his memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes. He became a household name in his country more as a writer than a maker of pots.

He traces the journey of his paternal grandmother’s family through a collection of Japanese netsuke, or miniature figurines. In a recent interview, de Waal claims to have never felt that writing and making objects of art were separate. He reveals: “I don’t really suspend one activity for the other. It sounds incredibly bogus but there is so much writing in making pots, and so much weight and shape to the writing.”

I must admit that I like receiving plants and books as gifts. Easy to please, right? To me, nothing beats a flowering shrub or the pungent pages of an unread book. I may be misguided, but I like to assume that the recipients of my meticulously chosen gifts share the same appreciation.

Yet at times, I have caved in. What happens when the recipient of your carefully chosen plant or publication is neither an enthusiastic gardener nor an ardent reader? I have then twisted a ribbon around a bottle of wine or sought a box of chocolates that would appease a particularly finicky child.

Much as the younger generation may resent yet another boring book filled with words, I won’t be giving up on giving books as gifts any time soon. Words, when you value and understand them, are more than adequate.

You can own an object, but words just – are.

> Delighting in dead ends, Jacqueline Pereira seeks unexpected encounters to counter the outmoded. Find her on Facebook at Jacqueline-Pereira-Writing-on.

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Do words matter?


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