It’s been more than a month since lockdown started over here… where’s here? …well it’s many places in the world. But for me here is a very nice place blessed with a nice view. 🍃🌺😃
The same as many people, being indoors has been a huge challenge in which all sort of things – toughts and emotions- have to be dealt with at a surprisingly fast pace. 😣
I remember when all this started, not so long ago, even when it feels like an eternity now, one of my first toughts was ‘will I still be here when all this is over?” – Hard not to think about your own limits when all around your life has been limited…
But… got to adjust fast, missing my old normal and learning to survive my new normal.
Nowadays, I wonder what ‘normal’ would look like when all this ends… 🙈🙉🙊
So, what I’ve learned so far…
– Frustration has overcome my feelings and toughts in two different situations: needing something urgently and depending on others to deliver it home, and not being able to focus on reading.😣
– I’ve found a huge comfort on exchanging (virtually) points of view with my friends in my hometown and around the world.
– Virtual hugs are great! 😊
– I’ve got some relief when I read that many people everywhere can’t focus on reading either. Mainly because, yes, our brains are overwhelmed trying to solve more urgent issues. Happily, I’m enjoying reading again! 😆
– A good friend of mine has been sharing photos of trees and flowers, and that has inspired me to admire with wide open eyes all the nature that surrunds me.🌱🌾🍃
– I love listening to the birds whenever they sing.🐦🐦🐦
– I don’t regularly like listening to crickets but now I found their noisy presence somehow comforting, as a sign of normality.
– It’s the first time that I’ve felt the whole meaning of the proverbial phrase ‘you don’t know what you have until you lose it’ – I never imagined I wouldn’t be able to leave home. 😱
– Not being able to travel …anywhere …at all! That really hurts. 😢
– None of the two points above mean much when I happen to see the amount of people who have died due to this crazy desease. Then all I can think of is how sad it is that all those lives were cut short. And I also think about their families. So much sadness around the world right now. 😭
– Life -and people- have a strange way of adjusting and moving on… 🌎
– And talking about this… I just can’t have enough of all those amazing animals that are happily exploring the empty cities and those which are enjoying immensely all that natural parks and beaches free of tourists. All these animals truly rock! 🐴
– Oh! Cooking, is so much fun.😋 Sharing it via the cyber space with friends, is a lot more fun! 💢💫😊🍕😊💨💻
– Memories of my trips are golden now, and I mean serious gold! 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
– A couple of coments I’ve heard that I carry with me all the time: “remeber that we have to take this one day at a time” 📆 … and “we can not go out of this the same way as we came in, we, as citizens of the world, have to do it a lot better next time” 😃
– Moods in the inside world go up and down and up again like the ferris wheel 🎡, sometimes like a carrousel 🎠 and some many other like a roller coaster 🎢. Life is a circus after all! 🎪
Many weeks inside are yet to come, and I constantly ask myself what it’ll be like when I’m finally able to go out freely. I wonder what I’ll feel when I see my city for the first time in a long while… the same city that I cannot see right now… what I would feel being around a lot of people… what it’d be like to aproach someone without fear… so many questions in my mind, so many dreams and wishes waiting to be free… 😃
We stand amazed by the vitality of printed books, a more than 500-year-old technique, both on and offline. We have observed over the years all of the dialogue which books have created around themselves, through 150 interviews with readers, bookshops, publishers, bloggers, library assistants, 25 participant observations, 750 responses to an online questionnaire and 5,000 mapped sites in France and the francophone world. An impressive collective activity. So, yes, your book carries on living just by staying on your shelf because you talk about it, remember it, and refer to it in conversation. Even better still, you might have lent it to a friend so that she can read it, perhaps you have spent time with people who have spoken about it before buying it, or after having read it. You will have encountered official reviews, of course, and also blogs about it. The conversation goes on even when the book is no longer in circulation.
Paper books circulate better than their digital versions
What first struck us was the very active circulation of books in print, compared with digital versions which do not spread so well. Once a book has been sold either in a bookshop or through an online platform, it has multiple lives. It can be loaned, given as a present, but also sold on second-hand, online or in specialist shops. And it can go full circle and be resold, such journeys made in a book’s life are rarely taken into account by the overall evaluation of the publication.
The application Bookcrossing allows you to follow books that we “abandon” or “set free” by chance in public places so that strangers take possession of and, then, you hope, get in touch to keep track of the book’s journey. Elsewhere, the book will be left in an open-access “book box” which have popped up across France and other countries. Some websites have become experts in selling second-hand books like Recyclivre, which uses Amazon to gain visibility.
Yard sales, antiques fairs, book markets give a new lease of life to countless books which remained forgotten because they were a quick one-time read. The book as a material object, regardless of its age, retains an unequalled sensorial pleasure, and brings with it special memories, bygone times, a sacred piece of craftsmanship with its fragile bindings, or, the nostalgia offered by children’s books or fairy tales.
Whole professions are dedicated to the web, and increasingly so, since it first came into existence. This has turned the second life of books and the recycling of them into a money-making machine for online retailers, and as a result books are kept alive. Some people have become eBay sellers, experts only thanks to the books they sell on this platform. Sometimes even, these books’ lives are extended by charity shops, such as Oxfam. At some stage however, there is only the paper left to give a book its value, once it has been battered and recycled.
One would have thought that faced with the weight, volume, and physical space occupied by books in print, that the digital book ought to have wiped the floor with its print counterpart. This has been the case with online music, for example, which practically handed a death sentence to the CD, or for films on demand which have greatly shrunk the DVD market. However, for books, this simply has not happened. In the United States like in France, the market for online books never surpasses the 20% mark of the sales revenues of books in print. And that is without including the sales revenue of the second-hand book market as we previously mentioned. The digital book seldom goes anywhere once purchased, due to controls imposed on the files by digital-rights management (DRM) and the incompatibility of their formats on other digital devices (Kindle and others).
Our interviews revealed the pleasure of giving books as presents, but also of lending them. The exchange of the physical item with its cover, size and unique smell bring much more satisfaction than if a well-meaning friend offers you digital book files on a USB stick containing… a thousand files already downloaded! Indeed, the latter will seldom ever be considered a present but rather a simple file transfer, equivalent to what we do several times a day at work. This also gives rights holders reasons to thus decry “not paying is theft”, in this case the gift of files would also become theft.
Bloggers who exchange books as presents (bookswapping) show that goodwill prevails and puts stress on the backburner. This is done on the condition that the book is personalised in some way: a poignant quote, a meaningful object associated in some way with the book (cakes for example!), and the surprise of receiving a completely random gesture of kindness.
A dense and thriving network reliant on the Internet
What travels even better than books are conversations, opinions, critiques, recommendations. Some discussions are created within or around reading groups or in dedicated forums online such as the Orange Network Library, for example. There are recommended reading lists, readers’ ratings, and book signings with authors are organised. These networks are digital, but they existed well before the Internet, and they remain dynamic today.
However, the rise of blogs at the start of the 2000s led to an increase in the number of reviews by ordinary people. This provided visibility, even a reputation for some bloggers. Of course, institutional and newsworthy reviews continue to play their role in guiding the masses, and they are influential prescribers protected by publishers. But websites like Babelio, combine a popular expertise, shared and distributed among many bloggers who are sometimes very specialised themselves. The website was created in 2007 and has over 690,000 reader members.
The proliferation of content and publications can easily disorientate us; the role of these passionate bloggers, who are often experts in given literary fields, becomes important because they are “natural” influencers one might say, as they are the closest to the public. However, some publishers have understood the benefits of working with these bloggers, especially in so far as concerns specialist genres like manga, comics, crime novels or youth fiction. Sometimes a blogger, YouTuber and web writer is published like Nine Gorman.
Some bookshops contribute even more directly in coordinating these bookworms, they “mould” their audience, or at least they support the books both online and in their shops with face-to-face meetings. Conversation is a unifying force for fans who are undoubtedly the best broadcasters across a broad sphere.
Platforms encourage readers to expand their domain, in the guise of fanfictions, which are published online by the author or his readers. The relationship with authors is closer than ever and is much more direct, the same can be said of the music industry. On particular platforms like Wattpad, texts which are made available are linked with collective commentary.
But above all, the dialogue about reading has often been transformed into writing itself. It might be published on a blog and may be likened to authorial work but at the other end of the spectrum, it might be something modest like the annotations one leaves in their own book. These annotations, more common in non-fiction texts, can form a sort of trade. For example if you lend or sell on a book, which is also stocked and shared with the online systems of Hypothes.is, it allows any article found on the web to be annotated, and the comments saved independent to the display format of the article. This makes it easier to organise readers into groups.
Printed books have in fact become digital through the use of digital platforms which allow them to be circulated as an object or as conversations about the book. The collective attention paid creates a permanent and collaborative piece of work, very different to frenetic posts on social media. Readers take their time to read, a different type of engagement altogether to social media’s high frequency, rapid exchanges. The combination of these differently paced interactions can, though, encourage one just to read through alerts from social media posts then followed by a longer form of reading.
Networks formed by books constitute as well a major resource for attracting attention. This is still not a substitute for the effects of “prize season” which guides the mass readership, but which deserves to be considered more critically, given the fact that publishers increasingly take advantage of these active communities.
It would thus be possible to think of the digital book as part of the related book ecosystem, rather than treating it as just a clone. To call it homothetic, is to say that it is an exact recreation of the format and properties of the book in print in a digital format. Let’s imagine multimedia books connected to, and permanently engaged with, the dialogue surrounding the book – this would be something else entirely, affording added value which would justify the current retail price for simple files. This would therefore be an “access book” and which would perhaps attract a brand new audience and above all it would widen this collective creativity already present around books in print.
Dominique Boullier, Mariannig Le Béchec and Maxime Crépel are the authors of “The book exchange: Books’ lives and readers’ practices.”
Since the days of Aesop, animals have been used as vehicles by which humankind has addressed its moral, ethical and cultural identity. For some, this serves to misrepresent animals, privileging anthropomorphism at the expense of the more sensitive address of animal sentience and welfare. For others, this approach allows humans to circumvent their own social taboos to reveal not merely fresh insights into what it is to be human, but also humanity’s intrinsic relationship to animals, with animals, and as part of nature.
Beatrix Potter enjoyed the work of poet Edward Lear, who specialised in nonsense verse and who wrote about a “Remarkable Rabbit”. Potter thus decided to create The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the story of a mischievous rabbit, who disobeys his mother, to play in Mr and Mrs McGregor’s garden, despite all its apparent dangers. From the outset, it was Potter’s intention to use the story to show both human characteristics and animal behaviour.
Peter is at once a playful vehicle by which to assess human foible and to present an animal within a pastoral environment. Reception of the story over time has been mixed. Is Peter a social transgressor within a human conception of the world, or merely the epitome of “the wild” outside the codes and conventions of rural society? Is the garden his most “natural” environment and home comforts a mere distortion of the countryside? And is Mr McGregor, the gardener intent on keeping rabbits off his patch, Peter’s most obvious adversary in the great chain of being?
These are but some of the issues in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which make it one of the most enduring and popular of children’s narratives.
Initially written as a series of illustrated letters to her friend, Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, in 1893, the texts were reclaimed by Potter for private publication, and later taken up by established publisher, Frederick Warne & Co. Its words and images were finalised by the 1903 edition.
Potter insisted the size of the book be suitable for children to hold, and that the animal illustrations were anatomically correct. Her watercolours provide the text with its distinctive aesthetic. Potter also drew the images from the animal’s point of view, a vantage point nominally shared by a child’s gaze, which stimulates the empathy of the young reader. Potter herself is a detached storyteller, narrating the indifferent (omni)presence of the human world.
This clear and precise vision for Peter informed Potter’s decision to resist Walt Disney’s approach to adapt the story into an animated feature in 1936. A 1935 Merrie Melodies cartoon, Country Boy, freely adapted The Tale of Peter Rabbit a year earlier.
Disney, though, an admirer of the hare drawings of Heinrich Kley, saw Peter as an appealing rabbit character that would advance his own earlier creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Debuting in 1927, Oswald featured in 27 shorts, rivalling Felix the Cat, but in 1928, Charles Mintz took the rights from Disney for the character, forcing Disney to create another – soon afterwards, Mickey Mouse became the studio’s signature character. Disney realised, though, that he needed a more iconic rabbit, and Potter’s Peter was his favoured character.
Keen to maintain the tone, aesthetic and copyright of her book, Potter ensured Peter’s identity would always be bound up, though, with the serious tone and colour palette of her own illustrations.
Potter’s watercolours also later influenced the art direction of Bambi in 1942, and her rabbit sketches (1890) the design of Thumper.
Crucially, Potter’s imagery represented her artistic and intellectual skills as a naturalist. This helps to present Potter not as a quasi-Victorian moralist, but as a modernist, insisting upon a representation of what animals and children might naturally do. Disney would surely have made Peter both comic and morally accountable. Potter ensures he is both feisty and fun. As a more incisive fabulist, Potter depicts what Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein suggests (when, ironically, writing about Disney’s characters) is the “factual regression into the animal”.
The integrity of Potter’s design and outlook is maintained in Geoff Dunbar’s later television series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends, which aired between 1992 and 1995. Each tale is bookended by live-action vignettes, featuring Niamh Cusack as Potter, filmed in Potter’s real-life home environment of Hill Top Farm in the Lake District.
A CGI series, Peter Rabbit, made for the Nickelodeon Channel in 2012, anticipates the more improvisatory tone and outlook of the recent Sony Entertainment adaptation of the Potter tale, Peter Rabbit. The Sony film mistakes Peter’s imperative to return to nature for a need to crassly avenge and humiliate Mr McGregor. Though playful, this detracts from the tension between human and animal explored in Potter’s text. It replaces Peter’s essential struggle for independence, with routine adventures in the garden.
It is important to recall, then, that Potter wrote that Peter’s father was baked in a pie by Mrs McGregor. Real world things really happen to animals. Throughout the story, Peter is aware of the danger he is in. He is aware of his own mortality. Peter’s persona as a “naughty boy” is not played out as an identity by which he is judged or punished, though, but rather, as a sensibility that must simply enact itself.
Children are left to decide for themselves about the consequences of his disobedience and desire. As such, this ambiguity has helped maintain The Tale of Peter Rabbit as part of a canon of literature and film for children that has become part of the very process of their development and socialisation.
We live in a culture obsessed with speed: fast-food, Twitter, overnight celebrity, instant make-overs and cutting edge techno-gadgets. We drive too fast, desperate to get ahead literally as well as metaphorically. And when we get home we surf TV, scroll through Facebook, eat, drink and talk on the phone. Apparently, the only thing we want to slow down in the modern world is the ageing process – and it’s no surprise that our solution to that problem is a quick injection of Botox or a lunch-time facelift.
Far from being an oasis of tranquillity, the world of books is not immune to the demands of 24/7 society. Publishers – keen to get a new writer’s name on the radar – are at the very least likely to commission a book a year from each author. Some want writers to work even more quickly. Six months is seen by some as a reasonable gestation period for a genre book; three months is not unknown. (Literary writers get more leeway, but the pressures are still there. Prizes must be won; the public must be satisfied.) After all, the aim is to get the book out there, in front of readers, on Amazon.
As for other writers, with that brilliant, world-changing novel as yet unwritten, the answer is surely to write one as soon as possible. Until the thing exists in tangible form, then the dream of being a writer will never become a reality. One solution is to sign up with NaNoWriMo, a global writing project which takes place every November. Writers log in, pledge to produce 50,000 words by the end of the month – and off they go. Some fall by the wayside, but the organisers report that last year more than 300,000 reached the target: “They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle-school English teachers. They walked away novelists.”
Up to a point. Those NaNoWriMo completers have certainly written enough words to fill a novel – although a fairly short one in contemporary terms – but this is inevitably a process that privileges speed over quality. Even if it’s accepted that these 50,000 words form a work in progress, the value of writing that much that quickly is unclear.
My own experience is that writing a first draft without reflection can in itself be a strange form of evasion – you keep writing in the vain hope that by producing lots of words the problems in your narrative will resolve themselves. But sometimes it is essential to stop and think – and question. Before I completed my first novel, I began two other novels that hit the wall at 30,000 words. I fell short of NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 goal, but wrote in that spirit, churning out words against the clock, smoking furiously. (I was young then, and thought this was part of the deal.)
There are pros and cons of writing under pressure. Every writer is different, and this applies to speed of production as much as it does to style. In the “speed” corner we have George Simenon, who would have been a NaNoWriMo natural, with an average novel production time of four weeks; and John Grisham, who wrote his bestseller The Pelican Brief in 100 days. One of the most notorious writers both at and on speed was Jack Kerouac who penned On the Road in three weeks, aided by Benzedrine. The result, produced on a 120-foot scroll manuscript, prompted Truman Capote’s killer put-down: “That’s not writing, it’s typing”.
In the slow corner is Donna Tartt, whose career does not appear to have been damaged by producing a novel every decade. Then there’s Tom Wolfe, who took 11 years to write A Man in Full and J.R.R Tolkien, who began writing what was to be The Lord of the Rings in 1936 and finished in 1952. But the daddy of slow writing must be William H Gass, who took 30 years to write his masterwork, The Tunnel.
I’m not suggesting that one group is superior to the other, but it’s important to remember that along with their unique voice each writer found their natural speed. My last novel took four years to write and that seems to be my optimum pace. Some writers need to take their time. Writing a novel isn’t like going on The X Factor – itself a concept which is looking stale – and though impatience and dissatisfaction can fuel determination, they can also be a snare.
After all, the writing is the only phase of a novel’s life that is ours alone. If we do find an agent, a publisher, an audience, our book belongs to other people. Just as an artist is usually more at home in a studio than a gallery, we are in our element when we are sitting at our laptop, inventing worlds. There are no quick fixes if you want to write the best book that you can. And writing isn’t about endings; it is a way of life.
We are pleased to welcome you to The Village Square Journal. A village square is more than just a venue, it is a catalyst of sorts for the arts, and all forms of its expression. The Village Square Journal seeks to be a hub where play and artistic display come together to thrill and thrive, as well a compendium of sorts for culture preservation. It also looks forward to being a fulcrum of the promotion and appreciation of all forms of visual arts, contemporary literature and politics
We feel honoured to launch our website with works from the finest selection of literary artists across the globe. Click on our fiction tab, and time travel with Jayne Bauling’s “Ancient Words.” It promises to be a smooth trip with the first 2000 words of Karen Jennings’ novel in progress, Crooked Seeds waiting to intrigue you aussi. Our essay tab is just as titillating, as there you will read multiple-award winning author and academic, Helon Habila.
Then there is a super informative opinion piece from Trish Nicholson based on her research on the history of famous women from the Stone Age to the 20thcentury that cuts across Egypt, Northern Nigeria, Scotland, Ethiopia, and India.
Our poetry tab will lead you to two profound poems. One from Toni Stuart that addresses the strength of women and another from Richard Inya on immigration and the fate of migrants trying to cross the Red Sea.
Follow our interview editor to Cameroon as she interviews Patrice Nganang, the professor recently incarcerated by Paul Biya, and read her conversation with Julie Owono, a human rights activist/lawyer based in Paris, France.
There is also the conversation between two of our editors and two editors of The Temz Review, Amy Mitchell and Aaron Schneider. We also thought you would want to have a yummy laugh, so we served you our Cameroon vs Nigeria Jollof War.
This outing would be impossible but for the brilliance, commitment and dedication of our contributing editors; Ngum Ngafor, Noma Sibanda and Nora Vasconcelos. We also wish to express our heartfelt gratitude to the members of our advisory board; Ivor Hartman, Viola Llewellyn, Professor Akachi Ezeigbo and Sian Ejiwumi-Le Berre.
We look forward to your feedback and to constantly serving the finest selection of literary pieces.
Thanks, Nora, for inviting me to your Christmas Blog.
I appreciate being asked. I feel very fortunate to be in the position I am and would love to use this moment to talk about compassion. At Christmas this is something we should practice more of.
I’m aware of the devastation caused in Mexico and how I felt when I heard about it. My first thoughts were about you. If you, and your family, were ok. When you write you inhabit an insular world where for a period of time your mind is elsewhere, not focussed on the present. It’s a surreal position to be in.
I started writing so that anyone who was suffering may gain a reprieve through my books. I know, when I’m having a bad day, I look forward to the chance to pick a book up and escape. The reality is, for some, there is no escape.
I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose everything and have nothing. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be in a country separated by a wall. I lived in Berlin in the 70’s and witnessed the devastation the wall caused there.
When I was in the police, Christmas was a time of celebration but also violence and loss. Violence from domestic disturbances fuelled by alcohol and drugs. Loss from, Burglary, Robbery and Murder. It’s as if a notion of survival arises and brings out the worst in people at a time when people should come together.
This isn’t a case of bah humbug. I enjoy Christmas with my family. I feel blessed to be in a position to experience this.
As a writer my hope is that anyone who reads Rubicon over the Christmas period is afforded some pleasure. If I have achieved that then the effort has been worth it.
I’ve gone from one life of service to another. I enjoy seeing reviews where my book has had a positive impact on the readers’ experience. In the police you could see the impact your presence was making. Sometimes positive other times not so!
I would like to thank you for your support this year and everyone else who has contributed to making readers aware of Rubicon. To all those who’ve read it, Thank you. To the team at Fahrenheit Press, all those who’ve reviewed it, thank you. To me, writing is a gift and must be used positively to entertain and provoke questions for readers. I’m in a fortunate position to be able to write. I am thankful for that.
Compassion isn’t a passive act it takes practice and effort. The results are amazing though and the benefits to society immeasurable.
Wishing you and all your readers a peaceful and happy Christmas.
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.
Author Bio: 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.