Dealing with Unwanted Gifts

We all know it’s the thought that counts but let’s face facts. It doesn’t always make sense to keep everyone’s ‘thoughtfulness.’ It may duplicate something you have, be utterly opposed to your taste or lifestyle. Or it may – the truth hurts – be utter crap. So, what do you do after you smile sweetly and say thank you?

bad_jumper

Continue reading “Dealing with Unwanted Gifts”

News Peruse: June 17, 2013

I’ve been quite the whirlwind of activity lately and that means I’ve fallen a tad behind on my reading from around the biz. Today is my catch up day and I though you all might like to tag along while I peruse the news of the last few days from the world of publishing, marketing and all points digital.

Marketers Are Not Publishing Enough Content – via the blogs at Harvard Business Review

The article asks in regards to the quality vs. quantity debate: “Why can’t brands create a lot of high quality content?” and my answer is they don’t want to pay for it. Some will, of course but many take the “how hard can it be” position and either DIY it or go for the lowest possible bidder. Result? Spotty at best – but then, you get what you pay for.

The Slow Media Manifesto – via Pando Daily article, The Opportunity for Slow Media

I found this whole idea fascinating. It touched on things I’d been noodling about (without wholly realizing I’d been noodling about them). With so many channels, so many people on those channels and all of them trying to GET THERE FIRST or POST THE MOST – media output from all this risks becoming just so much white noise. If we’re honest, for a lot of the intended audience, it’s already become just that. So what is the answer? You can’t put the toothpaste – or Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, Flickr, etc – back in the tube. And no one is suggesting we do so. But there must be a way to have both the snippets, the bites, the fast and dirty along with the robust, the detailed, the involved. Like the social media version of long form journalism. The mechanism exists. They always have. It’s a question of training (or retraining) the audience who have come to accept and embrace the fast to the exclusion of the slow. Maybe it’s not a question of audience behavior and expectation. Those who want “slow media” or for that matter long form journalism will seek it out. So maybe it’s not about training an audience to want it (or retaining them to want it again) but about serving an audience who is already out there but undeserved. In which case, it’s about making it more widely available and therefore easier to find

Conjuring Cohesion and Purpose: How Ursula Nordstrom Cultivated Maurice Sendak’s Genius via the always interesting Brainpickings

“Yes, Moby Dick is great, but honestly don’t you see great gobs of it that could come out?” Yes, the great Ursula Nordstrom and I are on the same page there <g> But seriously, this is a wonderful letter – conversational, motivational and encouraging ALL at the same time. And, of course, beautifully written. No one writes letter like this anymore. Pity.

 The Librarian’s List – happily discovered on Pinterest

Described as “a list of our most beloved books, “bookish” quotes, and book lists created by librarians for librarians and the world” – this has kept me delightfully occupied for FAR too long lately. I have just started compiling my own recommended bookshelf on Pinterest so it was LOVELY to find this. Daunting yes as it is so much better curated and vastly bigger than mine. But oh so inspiring. A great use of Pinterest, too.

Bookstores! Not news per se but an item of interest. I am always on the lookout for new bookstores of all kinds (and being only a short train ride to Oxford, this quest is easier than ever. The town is full not only of students, bikes, tourists and history around every corner. It’s FULL of bookstores and I wanted to mention the two that have been tempting me (and terrifying my bookshelves) of late:

The Last Bookshop – what a sad name, right? But you don’t stay sad for long and here’s why. Every book in the place is £2. That’s right. EVERY BOOK. It’s a remainders shop but unlike most remainders shops (full of books that are remaindered because you couldn’t imagine anyone buying them in the first place no matter how discounted, this one stocks remainders and returns largely from literary and specialist publishers. Lots of classics, a nice selection of university press stuff, quality non-fiction. That said, there is also a nice sized children’s section with plenty of offerings from mainstream trade presses and a very interesting cookery books section that I will showing to my mother (the great cookbook collector) next time she is visiting.

Blackwells – which we have ALL heard of (at least we should have) and which I have been to many times since moving to the UK. I have yet to not discover something new and fabulous on every trip. Last time I spent more time than usual in the Posters and Art shop (located across the street from the main bookshop) and I have PLANS for the walls in every room of this house as a result.  But the Art and Poster shop isn’t just posters and postcards. They have a gorgeous and really impressive stock of art, photography and film titles as well. If I won the lottery, I can guarantee that a goodly portion of my first installment would be spent here. If you can’t get there right away, you can take a virtual tour of the main bookshop on Broad Street.

And now, back to your (and my) regularly over-scheduled day. Check back soon for more updates and another episode of “News Peruse.”


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November: An Artistic and Literary Look Back

It’s too cold to go out and it’s too early to decorate for Chanukah/Christmas/New Year – so I take this moment to look back at some of the November literary and artistic highlights on the historical landscape. And as the Nobel prize is awarded around this time of year (it shifted to a slight earlier date in later years), it is – as you might expect full of notable names and moments

November Nobels for Literarure:

  • Nov 4, 1948: awarded to TS Eliot
  • Nov 5, 1930: awarded to Sinclair Lewis
  • Nov 10, 1938: awarded to Pearl Buck
  • Nov 10, 1949: awarded to William Faulkner
  • Nov 12, 1936: awarded to Eugene O’Neill

Elsewhere and elsewhen (a word I think I may have just made up):

  • Nov 1, 1604 – William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello is presented for the first time, at Whitehall Palace in London. In the same way that I summarize Hamlet as “Don’t bother me, I’m brooding” I like to think of Othello as “Don’t bother me, I’m DRAMA QUEENING!”
  • Nov 1, 1611 – William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy The Tempest is presented for the first time, at Whitehall Palace in London. I have no quirky summary for The Tempest. I’d like to come up with one involving a tea-pot but thus far, I’m drawing a blank.
  • Nov 2, 1960 – Penguin Books is found not guilty of obscenity in the trial R v Penguin Books Ltd., the Lady Chatterley’s Lover case.
  • Nov b, 1602: The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford is opened to the public. I went on the tour there last year. It was awesome and surreal and I can’t recommend this highly enough.
  • Nov 14, 1851: Moby-Dick is published (and generations of children continue to curse the name of Herman Melville to this day. I was one of them. And no, I didn’t think it improved upon re-reading as an adult.)
  • Nov 14, 1889: Nellie Bly, investigative journalist and adventurer, sets off on her trip around the world. Makes it in 72 days, beating the expected 80 by over a week. I’d like to her try it now with all these flight delays.
  • Nov 23, 1963: The BBC broadcasts the first episode of Doctor Who, now the world’s longest running science fiction drama.
  • On November 23, 1936: the first issue of Life magazine is published.
  • Nov 24, 1859: Origin of Species is published. And it’s not going away. No matter how hard some folks might want it to. Evolution. Darwin. Deal with it, people.
  • Nov 25, 1952: Mousetrap opens in London. I saw it in 1986. At the end of the show, the cast asks the audience NOT to reveal to others “who done it” so that the ending isn’t spoiled for future audiences. Even after all that time – and all this time since – apparently it works since even I (an avid Christie reader from way back) hadn’t heard the identity of the killer until I guessed at the beginning of the second act. Guessed slightly later than my brother, which irks me to this day.
  • Nov 28, 1582: In Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway pay a £40 bond for their marriage license. And honestly I saw no evidence on my recent trip to Stratford that he was there for much else. Disappointing.
  • Nov 30, 1886: The Folies Bergère stages its first revue. Can you can-can?

Is Content King Or Isn’t It?

When you work in marketing (or if you work with marketers) these days, you hear the phrase “Content is King” all the time. You also hear that it isn’t or that is due to be deposed any second by something else. But do you know where that phrase comes from and what it actually means? Does it still mean what it originally meant? Finally, is it true or isn’t it?

The phrase “Content is King” was coined by Sumner Redstone in the mid-90s and if anyone knows content, it’s the man who’s been sitting on a MOUNTAIN of content for decades. The phrase then crops up in 1996, used by Bill Gates as both the title and topic of an essay he wrote describing how he saw the internet and the monetization of the internet evolving. Both men were making the point that the way people engage with content changes and that drives change in the content itself but the need for content itself is a constant. Movie studios and theatres, DVD players, streaming video, publishers, newspapers, magazine, bookstores, television programs, broadcasting companies – they come, they go, they change, but the appetite for the content they put out remains high.

Well, 16 years later, looks like they were right about that whole ‘plus ça change plus c’est la même chose‘ thing.

Is print dying? I don’t know. Frankly neither does anyone else, not really. But what I do know is that books and newspapers used to be the primary vehicles for delivering reading material to the masses and now they are just one of many methods. These days people get reading materials from books, newspapers, on their e-readers, on their phones, through their headphones, on their computer. Has the amount of reading material produced gone down? Are you kidding? We’re DROWNING in the stuff. Has the demand for reading material gone down? No, again.  Thanks to the greater number of access points and the tidal wave of content being produced to fill that ever expanding space, people can pick and choose like never before.

Let’s look at this by segment.

News: In regards to news consumption, the increased choice of delivery vehicle and amount of content being delivered is undeniable. We’ve got:

  • newspapers (not dead yet),
  • news magazines (also not dead and showing signs of evolving),
  • 24 hour news channels,
  • niche channels,
  • the expansion of what is defined as news,
  • the explosion of the news-fed blogosphere.

I can’t say that I feel the explosion in availability of information has done a lot for the quality of that information or the discourse around it but it’s certainly ratcheted up the quantity. So, regardless of whether newspapers are dying or not, news production and news consumption are alive, more than well and kicking.

Books: Books used to be the only long form game in town and the path from author to reader was pretty well defined. A book was written, picked up by an agent and sold to a publisher (usually one of a limited number of publishers). The publisher produced the book and sold it to the distributors who then sold it to the bookseller and the bookseller sold it to the reader. Yes, there were smaller publishers but back in the day they had real problems getting access to bookshelf space in retail outlets or even catching the distributor’s eye.

These days, you might:

  • curl up with a book, turning actual paper pages as you go.
  • curl up with your Kindle, NOOK or iPad, clicking your way through the story
  • don headphones to listen to the works of Charles Dickens during commute to work.
  • have bought your reading material at a bricks & mortar store or from an online retailer.
  • get your book “serialized” into your inbox once a week or downloaded from the library.
  • be enjoying a read produced by a mainstream publishers, a small publisher, an established author or your next door neighbor’s teenage daughter.

As for the amount of content itself – well, with so many more options for producing and delivering this content, the scope of that content has gone similarly through the roof. An argument is often made that all this easier production process and multiplicity of delivery platforms hasn’t done much for the standards of consumer fiction (or non-fiction come to that) but I don’t think the it’s the only thing at play here.

Yes, the ever-simplified path to production and the rush to cash in means there is quite a lot of slap-dash stuff out there and stuff that wouldn’t, in earlier eras, would have never seen the light of day. But you know, publishers de-prioritized proofreading LONG before the internet and I’ve got the typo-filled books to prove it. Not to mention, quality standards when it came to deciding what to publish were always – let’s say – flexible and usually driven by the bottom line more than anything else. You can’t lay the whole history of dodgy topics, poor writing and crap story-telling at the door of self-publishing. Publishing needs to take a big girl pill and face their questionable output as well.

Music: Let me ask you a question – when was the last time you went into a record store? Do they even call them record stores anymore? Of all areas of content, the market for music has undergone the most comprehensive change of all.

Film: Movies have gone through a similar evolution to books as far as production process and access points. Back in the day it went like this: Movie studios made movies (based on some economically proven story structures) and distributed them to the movie theatres who then showed the movies to the audience. It was a single, stream-lined path from movie makers to the mainstream movie-going audience. Today? Movies and movie-watching has become a many-headed hydra.

Anyone can make a movie.

  • The Big Studios: who make only a few types because movie making on their scale is expensive and they are answerable to stockholders these days.
  • The Independents: Still banging on a certain number of doors but finding it much easier to be seen and heard than ever before.
  • You: Though whether the world is ready for your three part documentary on traditional thanksgiving turkey recipes is another question.
  • The Barista at the Coffee Shop on the Corner: who wrote a screenplay but doesn’t know any of the right people and instead knows a lot of folks willing to pitch in and help out.

Considering how much content is being produced by all these channels (few of them with output dictated by economics to the same extent as the big studios), we may never run out of things to watch despite having so many options of where, when and how to watch – in the theatre, at home, on the phone, via YouTube, streamed from Netflix, etc.

So – now we know where the phrase “Content Is King” came from, what was meant by it and how it has apparently played out. Is it still true?  Is Content King? I don’t think so. And what’s more, I don’t think it ever was.

Content is important, no doubt about it. It is absolutely key. It is the content that people want and will pay for pay for. Is the vast array of delivery mechanisms now more important than what is being delivered? I don’t think that either. Delivery is as important at the content itself. Why produce product if you can’t distribute it? How will you reap the rewards of your content efforts if you can’t get that content to those who want or need it.

So, content and delivery of that content are both central. But let’s face facts – you can produce all the content you want, have all the delivery systems you can dream up, delivering as much product as they can all hold – and none of it means anything without the consumer.

  • If you want to sell – you must have something the consumer wants.
  • If you want them to buy, you have to make it available when and where they want.

There was a lot that people got right when they predicted how the internet would change commerce and content consumption. But the empowerment of the consumer, the increasing importance of the audience in the equation seems to have snuck past and taken people by surprise.

Content and platform are now mere consorts to the real power on the throne – the consumer.

The King is dead. Long live the king.

Mapping By The Book

6 years ago, the New York Times published the Literary Map of Manhattan, illustrating where books and stories that take place in Manhattan – well, took place. I loved it. I loved how Manhattan and some of my favorite works fit together. I even enjoyed seeing how it fit with stuff that was not one of my favorites (for I confess, I am NOT a Melville fan). And now, I see that the British Library has done something similar – called Writing Britain – for the whole of Britain. It’s a crowd sourced supplement to their exhibit of the same name. As I said – it’s a similar idea but with a key difference. It’s not just the geographic breadth that is different however – it’s the breadth of entries themselves. The people at the BL have asked people to select and submit works that personally represent or have been shaped by a place – and have asked them to explain why. The Manhattan map was simply factual. This is a series of mini-stories in and of themselves. Fabulous!

The exhibit at the BL closes on Sept 25th (see the video preview below) but this site will carry on afterwards. Which is great because as I continue exploring my new home from coast to coast, I may want to “read along” with the locals.

Color and News Commentary

So – I have recovered from my “is grammar really THAT hard” rant of the other week and restrained myself from further ranting about the state of communicating generally between then and now. This was no mean feat, I assure you. I had rants ready to go about everything from:

  • the dying art of thank you notes
  • the ever-increasing lack of basic proofreading in offerings on the bookstore shelves
  • the casual relationship the American political scene has with the truth not to mention the even more depressing lack of interest so many voters have in that casual relationship
  • the lack of critical thinking and/or reading comprehension among the recently graduated on both sides of the Atlantic.

But I decided that I would confine my ranting on those topics to improvisational verbal riffs and not pound away at the keyboard about them. I have no desire to turn this blog into a rant factory. It’s more a peruse and muse place. And what I have been perusing lately is design. As many of you know, Modern Parlance is now a transatlantic affair (keeping one foot firmly on the East Coast despite the other foot being in the UK) and as part of the move (and as partly a reward to myself after the chaos of said move), I am redesigning the Modern Parlance workspace. I have been staring at paint samples, shelving, filing systems, etc. And I’ve been looking to literature and publishing for inspiration. Luckily, it’s a very inspiring pool in which to paddle.

  • In a new offering from Pantone (who are THE color people) there are a number of palettes created from the homes of authors such as Henry James and Jane Austen. The Paris Review has selected as few of their favorites – and of those, I have to say, Jane is in the lead. Though I don’t know if I’d want that color scheme all day every day. As an ongoing scheme, I am drawn to the “Breakfast in Bed” option (which you can see at the Amazon preview).
  • But it’s not just about color. I need art as well. Sure, one of my walls will be taken up with usual “scraps and notes” covered bulletin boards, but what about the other 3 walls. In order to keep NYC fresh in the mind, I went to peruse the History of New York in 50 Objects in the New York Times. It was inspired by the A History of the World in 100 Objects from BBC radio. Almost as soon as I saw it, I knew I needed SOMETHING on the walls incorporating the iconic Greek vase coffee cup. I am now in search of that.

Lest anyone think that I am focused solely on the aesthetics of the move, I must point out that I have also updated the links on my work history page and added a slew of updates and samples to my mediabistro profile. Very soon I shall be adding details of my latest project (just coming out of “initial planning stages into full blown “it’s ALIVE” mode) and digging back into the latest news. Items I’ve been pondering between updates and design decisions:

  • Does the Publishing Industry Care Too Much About Writing Quality? (on Nathan Bransford’s blog and which gave me much food for thought over morning coffee. Having read it and many of the comments that followed, I decided that it’s not that the industry cares ‘too much’ but that the audience (as a whole – I know YOU guys care) doesn’t care as much as the industry itself. And the industry cares less and less as they see money can be made from just about anything. I was left slightly depressed by my own conclusion.
  • The Publishing Process in GIF Form (also from Bransford and which had me howling with laughter)
  • The Nook is coming to the UK – and this pleases me. I have nothing against the Kindle in and of itself. But it did seem to be striding along over here uninterrupted and I always find that a bit – irksome. Yes, the Nook is coming late to the game but it’s a good product and plays nicely with a wider range of other good products. And the whole thing comes at a time when I am looking at FINALLY getting an e-reader. I knew that eventually, the issue of space would defeat my curmudgeonly refusal to wander down the digital road. And it has – combined with the fact that the aforementioned new project is electronic as well.

And so – I leave you with this last thought before I dive back into the process of working and working through decisions big and small. It’s an indexing find and those are worth their weight in gold. The handiest indexing reference I have found in a long time? Centerpieces from The Indexer. The indexing of names is far more complicated than a non-indexer might imagine and this is being bookmarked and kept at hand!

Ignoring Incorrectness

“How many is you got?” the shop assistant asked as we headed toward the dressing room. I winced. Not because I’d stubbed my toe or had just been found out in a sad attempt to take more items into the dressing room than was permitted. No, I winced because I’d once again smacked up against the casual inability of the public to speak their native tongue.

And before anyone ramps up into “OMG! American criticizing the way the British public speaks” mode, I shall state that an equal if not greater number and percentage of people in the US show an equal or greater inability to grasp their native tongue as well. I spent decades listening to my fellow Americans – from sea to shining sea – slaughtering the spoken word like they were being paid for each grammar goof. It just happens that I’m in the UK so at the moment, so it is the speakers of this land that have caught my attention. One might attempt to draw a link between both countries being awash in people unable to speak English properly and the English language being especially difficult. One might. But one would be wrong.

It’s pure laziness – on the part of speakers and on the part of those who hear such atrocities (Teachers, parents, bosses, etc. ) and accept them as – well, acceptable. We’ve all heard the sentences constructed around verb tenses doing a cameo from another sentence entirely. We’ve all seen that the vocabulary of the general public is shrinking to a degree that words like “snigger” and “niggardly” are so unknown that they are causing bursts of righteous indignation from folks who imagine they have a racist connotation. In addition to not knowing the parts of speech, the general public has also lost the ability to look things up in the dictionary.

Yes, “How many is you got?” was a small, relatively insignificant moment and yes, it was wrong but why am I so annoyed by it? It wasn’t just that it was wrong. It was the fact that this woman (somewhere in her mid-20s I’d guess) either didn’t know or didn’t care that it was wrong and THAT is a symptom of a larger problem. If she didn’t know, then she was failed by her parents and the educational system. If she didn’t care, she was failed by her parents, the educational system and a world that decided that good enough is good enough and not quite as good as it should be. It goes back to the idea that teaching grammar will turn kids off. As I said before, it’s not about liking it, it’s about knowing it.

I sometimes joke that it all went to hell when they stopped teaching sentence diagramming (because I loved sentence diagramming) but the truth is that it all started to go to hell when people stopped correcting their kids and their students at the point where mistakes were being made. If Little Johnny says 2+2=5 and the parents and/or teachers applaud that as little Johnny “thinking out of the box” then it shouldn’t surprise anyone that little Johnny can’t manage subject/verb agreement in day to day speech. Hell, little Johnny’s reading comprehension these days is so low that he can’t even understand what the word problems in grade school math class are ASKING so there’s no way he could be expected to – you know – solve them. But I suppose turning on the TV is a lot easier than sitting down and ensuring Johnny can actually read**

Sigh. I should have had decaf.

Lest you think I’m just in one of those moods or that I am alone in being annoyed by the fact that there are huge swathes of the English speaking population unable to communicate IN English, a bit of topical “site seeing” is in order.

Think getting into college means Little Johnny must be OK so there’s nothing to worry about? Not so. Plenty of kids get accepted into colleges without actually being prepared to cope with college-level classes.

This is a problem on many levels. For a start – if they aren’t ready for college, why is the college accepting them? But I’ll try and stay with my accepting the unacceptable idea so we’re not here all day. Just because the college will go back and repeat the material Little Johnny should already have learned, doesn’t mean we should all be fine with such a costly waste of time. It takes time and money. Not just Little Johnny’s time but the institution’s time – time that might be better spent on students who arrived prepared. And not just the money those extra courses costs Little Johnny’s parents – that’s their burden to bear if they failed to catch the issue in the previous 12 years of Johnny’s formal education – but the institution’s money, money that is not in abundant supply at the best of times and which should certainly be spent on more advanced issues than teaching Johnny to conjugate the verb “to be.”

The people in a position to make a huge difference in Little Johnny’s future have weighed in as well – and they are no happier than I am.

  • Good Applicants with Bad Grammar: We cannot help associating “bad” grammar with low intelligence, sloppiness and lack of refinement. I personally don’t care about refinement but low intelligence and sloppiness are not something I am looking for in employees. Or friends for that matter.
  • The Advantages of Good Grammar in the Workplace: In today’s highly competitive and global business landscape, being able to communicate quickly and effectively gives employees and entire organizations an edge over less articulate competitors. The job market being what it is (and what is likely to be like for the foreseeable future), you’d better be looking for ways to set yourself apart from hundreds of other applicants. Proofreading your materials and having someone else look at them seems a small enough effort to make. If you think it’s too much trouble, chances are the job itself is going to be an even steeper climb.
  • I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why: On the face of it, my zero tolerance approach to grammar errors might seem a little unfair. After all, grammar has nothing to do with job performance, or creativity, or intelligence, right? Wrong. If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with. So, even in this hyper-competitive market, I will pass on a great programmer who cannot write.

OK, I don’t have a zero tolerance approach – as regular readers can no doubt see for themselves. I blog very much as I speak and as a result, I’m bordering on addiction to parenthetical construction and hyphens. But all that aside, I couldn’t have said it better myself – especially in a job search situation. I cannot tell you how many times I have reviewed an error-riddled CV that lists “attention to detail” as an additional skill or a cover letter from a potential employees whose resume heralded them as “an outstanding communicator” but who wrote “”could of” instead of “could have.” Needless to say, neither of those people got to the interview stage. *

Yes, definitely decaf.


*Though I sent an email acknowledging receipt of their submissions because that is the polite thing to do. The fact that more and more employers don’t bother is another rant for another day.
** I have nothing against television or video games but priorities, people.

My Message To Plagiarists

Obviously – plagiarism is bad. Don’t do it. But honestly, today I came across someone who had not only done so but had selected the worst source material in the world to steal and claim as their own. It was riddled with grammatical errors and contained some of the clunkiest sentences I have seen since I learned to read.

Now, make no mistake. I am more than happy to re-purpose materials – I do it all the time. I have re-purposed scope documents, estimates, FAQs – even rants. I have reused my own work, I have borrowed (with permission and credit) the work of others. But there is a huge difference between such re-purposing or authorized re-use – and being clear that this is what you are doing – and presenting something as your own work. There is nothing acceptable about presenting something as having been SLAVED over for weeks when it was a few keystrokes and a save. Contracting to produce an article, documentation, essay or whatever you have been contracted to write – and then passing stolen work off is not only unacceptable and lazy, it is fraud.

The case today that annoyed me was not only a cut and paste job, it was a cut and paste job so sloppily and quickly done that the plagiarist either didn’t notice or didn’t recognize the substandard quality of their source material. Which – in and of itself – makes me wonder if their reading skills aren’t as substandard as their work ethic.

Finally – to all plagiarist and future plagiarist out there (since I don’t kid myself that there won’t always be people who do it): the internet may be great for finding tons and tons of source material to steal from but it’s also really good for finding the source material you STOLE from. You get what I am saying? So be on notice.

Books: Gifts That Keep On Giving

With the holidays fast approaching and the – OMG! It’s Dec 23rd and I haven’t finished wrapping! Hold on, I’ll be right back.

. . .

Right, done. Let’s begin again.

With the holidays fast approaching and the gifts piling up, I can’t help but recall some of the gifts I’ve gotten in the past – the ones that stood out for good or bad. First the bad – to get them out of the way.

One of the worst was from one of my mom’s friends. A woman who’d never given me anything before this and has never given me anything after. She gave me a cookbook entitled “Cooking for One” because “there’s no reason to be hungry AND alone.” Gee. Thanks. On the bright side, as a running gag, the book has given me and mine something to chuckle over for over 20 years. As gifts go, that’s pretty good value.

One of the best holiday gifts I ever received was the Oxford English Dictionary. Not that “two-volume, teeny-tiny print, comes with a magnifying glass” version. I mean the full “twenty-volume, comes in 5 boxes and takes up two whole shelves” version. As soon as the Press announced (in 1993 as best I recall) they were beginning work on the 3rd edition, copies of the 2nd edition were deeply discounted. I recall making a sort of surprised “whoop” sound when I saw HOW deeply and it was the whoop that attracted my father’s attention. I vaguely recall his look of confusion as I babbled about wanting the OED for ages and the chance to get it so (relatively) inexpensively would be a long time coming again. I imagine he thought to himself, “A dicitonary? Really? Well, OK – if that’s what she wants… could be worse, I suppose.”

And so it was ordered and so it arrived. The day it arrived, I was supposed to go to a friend’s birthday party. But then those 5 boxes showed up (4 volumes per box) and the temptation was too great. I called and reported that I’d come down with sniffles or a sore throat or something. In any case, did my best imitation of someone dying of consumption and very sorry to miss all the fun. Then I hung up, threw myself joyfully on the floor and began opening boxes.

Once they were unpacked, there was nothing I could do but to start perusing them. Each volume took about 30-45 minutes to get onto the shelf and to this day, I can still lose track of time wandering through entries and following my curiosity from word to word, historical example to etymological detail…

So, yes Dad -a  dictionary. A dictionary that is currently being revised but hey, 2nd edition was fine with me – and waiting for the new one? Well, a new edition of the OED takes decades – DECADES. The 3rd edition isn’t due to be finished until 2037. By the time it’s done, I will have had almost 45 years with my 2nd edition. Maybe I’ll treat myself when it’s done.

Other books I’ve been given over the years that I keep coming back to:

  • A complete set of hardcover editions of the Wimsey mysteries. Thank goodness for hardcover. I’ve been reading and re-reading these books for 30 years. I’ve gone through 5 paperback editions of Busman’s Honeymoon alone.
  • Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. OK, I don’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen but I do find myself coming back to this particular book time and time again because it’s much more than recipes. It’s more like having a really long chat over coffee about the food you love, recipes you’ve tweaked and eyebrow-waggling giggles over racy comments.

What books have you been given that keep on giving, long after they’ve been unwrapped?