Friday, December 18, 2009

The gift of discovery

If you were to ask me to name the best Christmas gift I ever received, I'm not sure I could answer that question. My husband, on the other hand, recalls a  powerful bazooka-type air gun that he and his brother found beneath their tree one winter. His arm draws back in joyful memory as he mimes the action of that once-upon-a-time toy. For me, however, the birthday and Christmas packages blur together, with no single gift standing out as better than another.

I do recall that I especially liked to receive books, and that books were familiar friends that greeted me nearly every Christmas. No doll or stuffed animal could compare to the power of the written word. Inevitably I played school with my “students”—an activity related, no doubt, to my love of reading. Reading, language, school, books—they all represented doorways to learning and discovery. That is still true today.

As an adult, I am excited each year when my husband gifts me with a copy of The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essays. I am excited about reading a dictionary; when my husband and I visited Amelia Island a little over a year ago, I was delighted to discover a 42-year-old copy of The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology in a lovely two-story bookshop.When we first got married and dragged a U-Haul trailer from Wisconsin to Coronado, California, where my husband was stationed as a Weapons Officer aboard the U.S.S. Blue Ridge, books filled most of the trailer space—and the bookcase in our one-bedroom furnished apartment occupied most of the living room. Thirty years later, one bookcase has grown to fourteen, with more books and magazines spilling over into crates and baskets in every room.

In retrospect, perhaps the greatest gift that my parents gave me each Christmas holiday was a means to feed my curiosity about the world. Although I may not be able to journey to every corner on the earth (although my parents did send me to Germany for a few months during junior high to experience life across the proverbial pond), through the written word I can become acquainted with different cultures and languages, various traditions, beliefs and perspectives, and an amazing diversity in history and geography. I don't think you can put a price on the value of discovery . . . this, then, is the best Christmas gift I ever received.