By Trish Nicholson
Before being sucked under the spells of retail elves and their Christmassy shelves, let’s take a not-too-serious look at the meaning of gifts over the ages.
The proverb ‘never look a gift-horse in the mouth’ is known across Europe in languages from Icelandic to Russian, but for anyone unfamiliar with this advice, it means we should not judge the intrinsic value of a gift. Experienced horse-dealers amongst you will know that the age and condition of a horse is gauged from its teeth: when you notice that the lavishly gift-wrapped box of chocolates your cousin sent you is nine months beyond its use-by date, you know you’ve been given a useless old nag.
It may be the thought that counts, but what, exactly, were they thinking?
In its purest form, giving is caring with no expectation of reward. It may demand equal commitment in learning to accept graciously. During a hectic working life I dashed off for fleeting visits to a favourite elderly aunt whenever I could. When the time came for me to leave, my aunt would press into my hand a package of squelchy spam sandwiches made with love to protect me from starvation on my 60-minute rail journey home. I could never stomach the sandwiches though I learnt to appreciate the gift with a full heart.
Like storytelling, gift-exchange emerged during the dawn of human history. The gift of an antelope steak given in good faith, accepted with grace, and later reciprocated with a well-knapped spear-head, created whole networks between families, clans and tribes. In time, the exchange of gifts developed into the first trade deals as the relative value of each item was arduously negotiated, but the significance was always more than economic – it created relationships based on trust. Even stories were bartered. Itinerant storytellers have long earned a night’s lodging with a good story, as Odysseus did in Homer’s Odyssey.
Barter remains important in many parts of the world. While living in Papua New Guinea I acquired my treasured collection of clay pots and shells through barter. And travelling in the Amazon, I exchanged my wellington boots for a two-metre poisoned-dart blow-pipe in a Yaguar village (a keep-sake that caused sensational hassles at every airport security check). Both transactions involved forging relationships – telling stories and learning to understand each other.
But in the same way that stories multiplied and diversified across the world, so did the forms and meanings of gift-giving.
A Viking chief was expected to be generous to his followers in dispensing loot from raiding expeditions. By gifts of gold to award valour and encourage loyalty, great leaders became known as ‘Ring Givers’. However, evidence of buried gold hoards suggests that some chiefs preferred to hide their ill-gotten gains underground – the Norse equivalent of an off-shore account. Gifts in exchange for loyalty are still a widespread practice, from the discount offered on your store loyalty card to the appointment of corporate raiders to plum jobs in government administrations.
Perhaps the most dramatic ritual gift-giving is the potlach ceremony, developed to a fine art by the Native American Kwakiutl peoples of the north-west coast. Any social or personal milestone provided an excuse for a potlach, but the biggest feasts for the greatest number of guests, the longest speeches and the most lavish gifts were preserved for the installation of a new successor to the chieftaincy. And everyone in the tribe was expected to dig deep to contribute.
Potlach was all about status. The volume of goods distributed boosted the social standing of the giver, as the value of each gift reflected the status of the recipient, and the more guests to witness the transaction the more powerful the event. To fall short in any of these calculations courted political suicide. It requires no stretch of the imagination to see all of this in world leaders’ rounds of state visits funded by hapless tax-payers, not to mention presidential inaugurations.
Gifts often involve a catch. Even Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity to children, celebrated in the Netherlands on December 5, was conditional upon each child’s past behaviour recorded in the Big Book. The medieval tradition, where Saint Nicholas’ helpers included frightening characters representing Satan, may have been the stick accompanying the carrots. But modern Zwarte Piet is a clownish trickster throwing tiny gingerbread biscuits into the crowd like confetti. As commercial interests focus on December 25th in line with most of Europe, the devil is forgotten and smart kids claim two Christmases.
Most religions recognised the importance of gift-giving either in shared celebration, as sweeteners to the gods or as a form of wealth distribution. Christians may follow the example of the Three Kings with their Christmas presents, but festive gift-giving features also in the Jewish Hanukkah and Hindu Divali, while giving alms to the needy is a central tenet of both Islamic and Sikh faiths. Although offering a small gift is a daily occurrence for Buddhists, I had not expected to be given an apple by the abbot while visiting a monastery in Bhutan. Luckily, I always take pens and postcards as little presents when travelling and found a spare pen in my pocket to reciprocate.Exchanging gifts appears to be a universal human practice but cultural awareness is advisable. Social occasions for gift-exchange occur throughout the year in China, but in a culture where maintaining ‘face’ ranks highly, what to give, to whom, when, and exactly how much to put into the ‘little red envelope’ poses an etiquette quagmire to the unwary.
My apologies if these reflections disrupt the Christmas gift-list you had already ticked off during the summer sales.
I may be a little biased, but to be on the safe side, I’m giving everyone books this year.
Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist, author of narrative non-fiction and a former columnist. Her latest work, A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, is the only global social-history of storytelling. Trish’s other books include two travelogues: Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals, and Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. Trish lives in New Zealand. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson and read her articles on www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com where there really is a tree house.
By Siobhan Phillips
A lot of people love personal letters now that very few people write them. We have publishing initiatives such as Letters in the Mail and The Letters Page, books such as For the Love of Letters (2007) or Signed, Sealed, Delivered (2014), and films such as Her (2013). Meanwhile, the United States Postal Service delivers more junk mail than first-class; rural post offices shutter; Saturday delivery remains under threat; and we send more than 200 billion emails and 15 billion texts a day worldwide.
‘[This] is a book about what we have lost by replacing letters with email,’ writes Simon Garfield at the start of To the Letter (2013). His answer is ‘individuality and authenticity’. I teach a class on letters as a literary and para-literary phenomenon, from the 18th-century aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, to Mallory Ortberg, co-founder of the site The Toast. The class invites epistolary nostalgia – then resists it, or studies it. The present fondness for letters tells us what we miss in our current habits of communication. But the history of letters is not exactly reassuring about the ways in which correspondence might redress the lack.
It can be hard to pin down what makes a personal letter, along with what makes for its individuality and authenticity. Connection is the most basic ‘reassurance that I am not floating out there alone in the universe’, as Nina Sankovitch writes in Signed, Sealed, Delivered. A letter links two particular persons, even when its words are handed round and read to others. And while we’re more connected than ever now, our connections can be less specific – we post a lot of ‘personal’ updates to a varied or unknown audience who has no responsibility to respond.
Still, emails and texts do keep us tethered; we won’t lose Sankovitch’s reassurance when the post office shutters. Nor will we lose the importance of writing – the next-most-obvious quality of the personal letter. Some indictments of our digital lives seize on the virtues of in-person, face-to-face interaction – put down the phone and talk – but even Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation (2015), recommends the letter in her earlier book Alone Together (2011). Personal letters have long made the case that writing allows people to grow closer in ways conversation might not. That benefit continues: for example, an article on mental health hotlines in The New Yorker in 2015 notes fuller communication via text exchanges than voice calls.
Other benefits do not, though. Fans of the personal letter are not satisfied with emails or texts because they want more than writing at a distance; they want handwriting at a distance. ‘Basically: it’s all about handwriting,’ John O’Connell writes in For the Love of Letters (2012). Wonderful email correspondences – such as I’m Very Into You (2015) between the novelist Kathy Acker and the writer McKenzie Wark, or between the poet Max Ritvo and the playwright Sarah Ruhl – contradict this claim, but its hyperbole is important. Physicality feeds the letter’s distinct appeal. Words on paper bring something that one person has touched to the touch of another; they metonymically figure the human body by transporting its combination of persistence and perishability.
Words on a screen have no such power. Tributes to the personal letter, therefore, can swell with mortal pathos: Turkle holds her mother’s correspondence ‘as though I hold her heart in my hands’; Sankovitch reads her sister’s letters and touches ‘the very substance of who she was’. Or they can play with sensuality. Garfield likes how letter-writing requires ‘the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers’ – and in the epistolary-tinged sexism of Her, a letter-writer purchases a female helpmeet with just enough body.
It’s worth understanding the origins of what seems like an arbitrary emphasis on material. With the 18th-century rise of the public sphere, as Michael Warner shows in The Letters of the Republic (1992), the published stuff proper to that realm had to be printed – which meant, it had to sever its connection with the human hand. Hand-writing, then, could signal the reverse, a private sphere that worked against – or protected one from – the abstractions of the public. If the latter was (purportedly, anyway) impersonal and disinterested, the former was specific and emotional. Just the place for reflective communication between particular people. Handwriting signalled its distinction.
So did delay. Temporal vagary is the final essential characteristic of the personal letter; with physicality, it sets the personal letter against digital messages. Correspondence presumes reply but not immediately. Punctual chasms allow emotions to clarify, deepen, resonate – Turkle celebrates time for reflection; Sankovitch finds ‘something wonderful about that interval’. The call of personal correspondence is not the Pavlovian, or Fordist, ping of an email or text, demanding immediate attention. Letter-writers are allowed a sensation of power over the narrative of their lives. Letter-writers can insist on their own – wasteful, unpredictable – clock. Just as a letter’s physical presence, then, resists the rationalisations of the public sphere, its temporal idiosyncrasies resist the efficiencies of capitalist production.
Indeed, the history of the personal letter is part of the history of these resistances, ready for contemporary emulation. It’s a feminist history. Letters have often been gendered feminine, just as the private sphere, full of irrational and non-productive sentiment, has for three centuries been seen as female. The editors Frank and Anita Kermode, for example, note in The Oxford Book of Letters (2003) that ‘a great many of the most accomplished letter-writers have been women’. (Though two-thirds of the contents they chose are written by men.) Letter-writing was part of the cultured woman’s accomplishments, one of her tools of seduction and defences against it. Letter-writing was the space for her to develop authority apart from a realm of published authorship. Along the way, letter-writing was a way for her to develop values that were not public ones – not a matter of capitalist worth or liberal politics.
Except that the private, epistolary sphere – from the start, and especially in the United States – worked more to complement than undermine its public, un-epistolary counterpart. The private sphere always had an economic and political role. Letters did, too. Consider the rhetoric of the antebellum United States, in which the ‘intimacy and authenticity’ of personal letters were used both to further and to criticise abolition. Letters contribute to the ‘intimate public sphere’ of hybrid, feminised, semi-political spaces. (The TinyLetter email newsletter marks the latest instance of this phenomenon.)
Much of what seems troublesome in digital culture today – the necessity of ‘personal brands’; the ubiquity of a politics of feeling; the transformation of sociality into unpaid labour; the unmarked blending of business contacts and ‘friends’ – much of this exaggerates letterish trends that for generations have worked to mix the private and the public while seeming to maintain the border between them. Scholars from several disciplines have shown how neoliberal markets and politics makes the ‘feminine’ a general (if still execrated) state: contingent, affective, unremunerated practice is becoming the basic condition of work and citizenship. Correspondence is part of this. Letters have faded because epistolarity persists.
If that’s the case, it’s hard to trust in going ‘back’ to the personal letter – that is, hard to trust in writing by hand at a variable delay to a specific other person before waiting for their reply. We need, absolutely, to understand and value a heritage of correspondence; and we should preserve and guarantee a robust public infrastructure for private exchange. But we also need to understand how the ‘personal’ has always been a category ripe for co-option by the very forces it is meant to mitigate and assuage. Perhaps the most useful lesson of the personal letter is in the way it shifts and changes, proving that what we call intimacy, individuality or authenticity does not transcend time – or remain locked in history. The ‘personal’ is what its genres do. Those genres, letters included, continue.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Most of us have an opinion about whether we prefer reading on screen or paper: but what difference does it make for children? The truth is that technology is now encountered from babyhood. Anecdotes abound of toddlers swiping their fingers across paper rather than turning the page, while parents and teachers express their fear of screen addiction as tablets introduce new distractions as well as new attractions for young readers.
Ofcom figures tell us that children’s screen use rises sharply towards the end of primary school (from age seven to 11) and in the same period, book-reading drops. Increasing screen use is a reality, but does it contribute to a loss of interest in reading, and does reading from a screen provide the same experience as the feel of reading on paper?
We looked at this in our research on shared reading. This has been a neglected topic even though it is clearly a common context for children when they read at home. It might be their regular homework reading of a book from school, or a parent reading them a favourite bedtime story.
We asked 24 mothers and their seven to nine-year-old children to take turns – mother reading or child reading – with popular fiction books on paper, and on a tablet. They read Barry Loser: I am not a Loser by Jim Smith and You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum by Andy Stanton. We found that the children’s memory for the descriptions and narratives showed no difference between the two media. But that’s not the whole story.
The interactions of parent and child were found to be different in the independent ratings from video observation of the study. When they read from paper rather than a screen, there was a significant increase in the warmth of the parent/child interactions: more laughter, more smiling, more shows of affection.
It may be that this is largely down to the simple physical positioning of the parent and child when using the different media, as well as their cultural meaning. When children were reading from a screen, they tended to hold the tablet in a head-down position, typical of the way they would use the device for solo activities such as one-player games or web-browsing.
This meant that the parents had to “shoulder-surf” in order to share visual attention. In contrast, when parents read to their children on paper, they often held the book out to support shared visual engagement, tucking the child cosily under their arms. Some children just listened without trying to see the book, but instead curled themselves up comfortably on the sofa.
Keep taking the tablets?
Our research joins a growing list of studies comparing paper and e-books, but the answer isn’t a simple one. Shared reading is different to reading alone, for a start. And we may be interested in whether screen or paper makes a difference in how children learn to read, to understand, and enjoy reading. In short there are multiple perspectives to consider – developmental, educational, literary and technological – if we are to decide which medium is preferable.
Most studies have compared children at the earliest stages of reading, using paper books, e-books with audio and dictionary support to help less-skilled readers, and so-called “enhanced” e-books with multimedia, activities, hotspots and games.
Text with audio support helps children to decode text, and multimedia can keep a reluctant reader engaged for longer, so a good e-book can indeed be as good as an adult reading a paper book with their child. But we don’t yet have long-term studies to tell us whether constant provision of audio might prevent children developing ways of unpicking the code of written language themselves.
Re-design for life
There is also increasing evidence that adding multimedia and games can quickly get distracting: one study found that young children spent almost half their time playing games in enhanced e-books, and therefore they read, remembered and understood little of the story itself. But there is plenty of guidance for e-book developers on the what, where and how much of designing multimedia texts.
And that brings us back to perhaps the defining conclusion from our own study. Books versus screens is not a simple either/or – children don’t read books in a cultural vacuum and we can’t approach the topic just from a single academic field. Books are just books, with a single typical use, but screens have many uses, and currently most of these uses are designed round a single user, even if that user is interacting with others remotely.
We believe that designers could think more about how such technology can be designed for sharing, and this is especially true for reading, which starts, and ideally continues, as a shared activity in the context of close long-term family relationships. Book Trust figures report a drop from 86% of parents reading with their five-year-olds to just 38% with 11-year olds. There is a possibility that the clever redesign of e-books and tablets might just slow that trend.
By Nora Vasconcelos
Ever since I can remember I’ve loved maps.
When I was a little girl I was thrilled when I found in my books colourful illustrations of foreign lands, even when they where imaginary ones.
I used to spend a long time looking carefully at all the details that those maps contained, divisions between lands, between the earth and the skies, between the skies and the oceans and among all the oceans that covered the known land and the ship routs to reach them.
Those maps took my mind travelling miles away and keep it there for a long time.
As I grew up, I started to enjoy those fantastic Atlas full of old legends and legendary creatures.
And just a few years later, I made a habit of looking up any new place that appeared in the books I was reading back then. So, a Globe and an illustrated dictionary were always at hand. I just couldn’t let it pass, I had to know exactly where those places were!
Nowadays, technology has given us the huge advantage of the Internet, with which looking up places is really fast, the same as getting several maps of any given destination when a trip is coming soon.
The Internet has become a great travelling tool. And, as I always say ‘a map will set you free‘, so to me is quite normal to read as many maps as possible of my new destination and then, with all that information in my head, I just give myself the wonderful chance to wander around without getting lost.
But even with all these wonderful advantages, I always melt when I see an old map.
This is way I got so so happy when I came across the amazing David Rumsey Map Collection. A website that let visitors find thousands of maps, divided in different categories.
These maps are not only beautiful, but also full of information, so much that a whole vacation could be completed without leaving home, only with the unique power of very detailed illustrations and descriptions, and the immense power of the imagination.
So you want to write a novel? Of course you do. Everyone wants to write a novel at some stage in their lives. While you’re at it, why not make it a popular bestseller? Who wants to write an unpopular worstseller? Therefore, make it a thriller. It worked for Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth …
Every now and then I come across excellent advice for the apprentice writer. There was a fine recent article, for example, in The Big Thrill (the house magazine of International Thriller Writers) on “how to lift the saggy middle” of a story. Like baking a cake. And then there is Eden Sharp’s The Thriller Formula, her step-by-step would-be writer’s self-help manual, drawing on both classic books and movies. I felt after reading it that I really ought to be able to put theory into practice (as she does in The Breaks).
But then I thought: why not go straight to the source? Just ask a “New York Times No. 1 bestseller” writer how it’s done. So, as I have recounted here before, I knocked on Lee Child’s door in Manhattan. For the benefit of the lucky Child-virgins who have yet to read the first sentence of his first novel (“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner”), Child, born in Coventry, is the author of the globally huge Jack Reacher series, featuring an XXL ex-army MP drifter vigilante.
It is a golden rule among members of the Magic Circle that, when asked: “How did you do that?”, magicians must do no more than smile mysteriously. Child helpfully twitched aside the curtain and revealed all. Mainly because he wanted to know himself how he did it. He wasn’t quite sure. He only took up writing because he got sacked from Granada TV. Now he has completed 20 novels with another one on the way. And has a Renoir and an Andy Warhol on the wall. Windows looking out over Central Park. Grammar school boy done well.
Cigarettes and coffee
He swears by large amounts of coffee (up to 30 cups, black, per day) and cigarettes (one pack of Camels, maybe two). Supplemented by an occasional pipe (filled with marijuana). “Your main problem is going to be involuntary inhalation,” he said, as I settled down to watch him write, looking over his shoulder, perched on a psychoanalyst’s couch a couple of yards behind him.
Which was about one yard away from total insanity for both of us.
Especially given that I stuck around for about the next nine months as he wrote Make Me: from the first word (“Moving”) through to the last (“needle”), with occasional breathers. A bizarre experiment, I guess, a “howdunnit”, although Child did say he would like to do it all again, possibly on the 50th book.
Maybe I shouldn’t be giving this away for free, but, beyond all the caffeine and nicotine, I think there actually is a magic formula. For a long while I thought it could be summed up in two words: sublime confidence. “This is not the first draft”, Child said, right at the outset, striking a Reacher-like note. “It’s the only draft!”
Don’t plan, don’t map it all out in advance, be spontaneous, instinctive. Enjoy the vast emptiness of the blank page. It will fill. Child compares starting a new book to falling off a cliff. You just have to have faith that there will be a soft landing. Child calls this methodology his patented “clueless” approach.
Look Ma, I’m a writer
To be fair, not all successful writers work like this. Ian Rankin, for one (in his case I relied on conventional channels of communication rather than breaking into his house and staring at him intently for long periods) goes through three or four drafts before he is happy – and makes several pages of notes too.
And yet, with his Rebus series set in Edinburgh, Rankin has produced as many bestsellers as Child. Rebus also demonstrates that your hero does not necessarily have to be 6’5″ with biceps the size of Popeye’s. And can be past retiring age too, as per the most recent Even Dogs in the Wild.
Child has a few key pointers for the would-be author: “Write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.” And: “Ask a question you can’t answer.” Rankin also advises: “No digressions, no lengthy and flowery descriptions.” He has a style, and recurrent “tropes”, but no “system”. And Child is similarly sceptical about Elmore Leonard’s “10 rules of writing”. “‘Never use an adverb’? Never is an adverb!” And what about Leonard’s scorn for starting with the weather? “What if it really is a dark and stormy night? What am I supposed to do, lie?”
Child never disses other writers. OK, almost never (there is one he wants to challenge to unarmed combat). But he is dismissive of a certain writerly attitude, a self-conscious mentality which he summarises as follows: “Hey, Ma, look – I’m writing!” And here we come close to the secret, the magic potion that if you could bottle it would be worth a fortune in book sales. Do the opposite. If you want to be a writer, the secret is: don’t be a writer. Try and forget you are writing (difficult, I know).
This is why both Child and Rankin speak with such reverence for the narrative “voice”. And why both privilege dialogue. The successful writer is a throwback to a vast, lost, oral tradition, pre-Homer. Another thing, fast-forwarding, they share in common: the default alter ego is rock star. It’s all about the vibe. Everything has to sound good when you read it aloud.
Art is theft
But if you seriously want to be a writer, think like a reader. Child explained this to me the other day in relation to his novel, Gone Tomorrow, set in New York, which is now often used to teach creative writing. “I introduce this beautiful mysterious woman. I started out thinking: I want my hero to go to bed with her. And then I thought: hold on, isn’t the reader going to be asking: ‘What if she is … bad?’” A small but crucial tweak: one letter – from bed to bad.
“So!” you might well conclude, “isn’t this bloke like one of those con men who offer to show you how to make a fortune (for a modest outlay) and you think: ‘Well, why don’t you do it then?’” Fair comment. Which is why I am starting a novel right now about an upstart fan who tricks his way into a successful writer’s apartment and steals all his best ideas. I don’t know why, it just came to me in a flash of inspiration. Maybe that, in a word, is the core of all great art: theft.
Andy Martin in conversation with Lee Child is part of the Cambridge Literary Festival on April 14.