Gifts

Dear Reader,

I hope you are enjoying your holidays. I hope that if you went home, you came back before your family forgot they invited you; that if you stayed put for a “quiet” holiday, you didn’t suddenly feel bereft; that if you spent the long weekend partying like it’s 1999 (it’s something else), the headaches you woke up to weren’t too awful.

I won’t have a whole lot for you in the next several weeks, but before the year is out I wanted to tell you about some treats–especially for those for whom money has become (or always was) a scant commodity, while art never was.

The first is the 1983 book “The Gift,” subtitled “Imagination and the erotic life of property” or “How the creative spirit transforms the world” or “Creativity and the artist in the modern world,” depending on your edition. (No, it is not a prequel to “The Secret.”)

The task the author, Lewis Hyde, sets himself is to offer a model of exchange and circulation for things that aren’t purchasable–even if you have to pay something for them–because they live beyond their own skin in the imaginations of the people who encounter them and whom they bind together. Hyde begins with folk tales and with artifacts of traditional societies with developed gift cultures, and moves on to scientists and artists in this epoch of “consumer triumphalism,” as he perfectly puts it. The book really is a gift–careful, methodical, subtle: a salve for anyone who makes art or brings ideas into the world without being much remunerated.

About a year and a half ago, choreographer Clare Byrne wrote in to wonder about the relationship between money, art-making, and religious faith:

I have a beef with capitalism, believe it’s aversely affecting art and me, but I’m trying to figure out why I feel this way…. Maybe it’s the fixed value of money in the capitalist exchange that makes it feel so trapping, so immovable. Maybe if we had a barter system, the whole exchange would feel much more “flexible” — more harmonious with my art-making and faith-making.

Hyde elaborates on her thoughts. (Enjoy, Clare!)

Speaking of circulation, immateriality, and low funds, I have just discovered an incredible service of the New York Public Library. I’ve always been elated by its enormous collection of books on CD–if the reader is good, there’s nothing like listening to a story while doing humdrum chores. And now, I’ve discovered, there’s a whole new stash of audiobooks, which you can check out without even leaving the house (as long as you have a New York public library card; perhaps other large library systems offer a similar service). It’s the ENYPL collection. Just look up the book the regular way, then click on ENYPL Access (if this book has that feature), and voila. If no one has checked it out, you get listening privileges for three weeks. If someone has, you can go on the waiting list. Listen from computer or iPod.

I tend to listen to novels and plays I’m reluctant to read. I’ve often been left with mind awhir. Best example: Paul “Sideways” Giamatti reading Phillip K. Dick’s dystopian “A Scanner Darkly.”

The mere idea of fizzled, druggie ’70s California makes me green, so why immerse myself in it, even with the great Dick leading the way? (I’ve earned my revulsion, haven’t I, being from the place?) But with Giamatti narrating, “A Scanner Darkly” catches the vague, appealing innocence of people prone to drugs in a culture too loose to hoover up their wobble and doubt.

Dick lets us step in and out of the echo chamber of their minds–hilarious, then tragic. On the other hand, he nests the innocents in a conspiracy-theory plot. This might have made him seem as doomed as they–and us, as skeptical. But at least with Giamatti reading, Dick is nowhere in sight. The tale circles in on itself; the protagonist of “A Scanner Darkly” is both an agent of his own loss and operates in a society that wants him lost. You can’t tell the difference between what our hero is doing to himself and what is being done to him. You become absorbed in the book the way this man of Giamatti’s is absorbed in the world. The experience is devastating and deep.

Audiobooks are also great for novels you have loved yet haven’t visited for so long, you are beginning to suspect they couldn’t really be as great as you remember. “Sister Carrie,” read by one C.M. Hebert, is a vindicating case in point, because it is as great.

“Dreiser’s people,” suggests New Yorker film critic David Denby in an excellent 2003 appreciation, aren’t so far from Dick’s:

Impelled by instinct and sustained by a tiny impulse of revolt, Dreiser’s people seek just a little bit of freedom, just a small opening to pleasure, and fail even to attain that modest ambition.


I love that Dreiser is objective without being distant. He captures the idiom of his characters’ thoughts–crowded with the current fashions of wanting and getting.


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Late this week: End of year round-up of best–or at least longest–Foot posts. (Everyone else is making lists, so why not ME?)



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Comments

  1. Lynn Brown says

    Am starting The Gift for the third time…I’ve sworn to read it once a year for the rest of my life. Transformative.
    [Apollinaire responds] Oh, so glad to hear. It seems to have been for lots of people–according to the blurbs on front and back cover: Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem.
    For those who want to get a taste of Hyde’s thinking, there was recently a New York Times magazine profile on him by one Daniel B. Smith: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/16/magazine/16hyde-t.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all
    Thanks for writing!

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