“The Five Boons of Life” — Mark Twain

 

“The Five Boons of Life,” a short fable from Mark Twain:

CHAPTER I

In the morning of life came a good fairy with her basket, and said:”Here are gifts. Take one, leave the others. And be wary, chose wisely; oh, choose wisely! for only one of them is valuable.”The gifts were five: Fame, Love, Riches, Pleasure, Death. The youth said, eagerly:”There is no need to consider”; and he chose Pleasure.He went out into the world and sought out the pleasures that youth delights in. But each in its turn was short-lived and disappointing, vain and empty; and each, departing, mocked him. In the end he said: “These years I have wasted. If I could but choose again, I would choose wisely.

CHAPTER II

The fairy appeared, and said:”Four of the gifts remain. Choose once more; and oh, remember-time is flying, and only one of them is precious.”The man considered long, then chose Love; and did not mark the tears that rose in the fairy’s eyes.After many, many years the man sat by a coffin, in an empty home. And he communed with himself, saying: “One by one they have gone away and left me; and now she lies here, the dearest and the last. Desolation after desolation has swept over me; for each hour of happiness the treacherous trader, Love, as sold me I have paid a thousand hours of grief. Out of my heart of hearts I curse him.”

CHAPTER III

“Choose again.” It was the fairy speaking.”The years have taught you wisdom — surely it must be so. Three gifts remain. Only one of them has any worth — remember it, and choose warily.”

The man reflected long, then chose Fame; and the fairy, sighing, went her way.Years went by and she came again, and stood behind the man where he sat solitary in the fading day, thinking. And she knew his thought:”My name filled the world, and its praises were on every tongue, and it seemed well with me for a little while. How little a while it was! Then came envy; then detraction; then calumny; then hate; then persecution. Then derision, which is the beginning of the end. And last of all came pity, which is the funeral of fame. Oh, the bitterness and misery of renown! target for mud in its prime, for contempt and compassion in its decay.”

 

CHAPTER IV

“Choose yet again.” It was the fairy’s voice.”Two gifts remain. And do not despair. In the beginning there was but one that was precious, and it is still here.””Wealth — which is power! How blind I was!” said the man. “Now, at last, life will be worth the living. I will spend, squander, dazzle. These mockers and despisers will crawl in the dirt before me, and I will feed my hungry heart with their envy. I will have all luxuries, all joys, all enchantments of the spirit, all contentments of the body that man holds dear. I will buy, buy, buy! deference, respect, esteem, worship — every pinchbeck grace of life the market of a trivial world can furnish forth. I have lost much time, and chosen badly heretofore, but let that pass; I was ignorant then, and could but take for best what seemed so.”Three short years went by, and a day came when the man sat shivering in a mean garret; and he was gaunt and wan and hollow-eyed, and clothed in rags; and he was gnawing a dry crust and mumbling:”Curse all the world’s gifts, for mockeries and gilded lies! And miscalled, every one. They are not gifts, but merely lendings. Pleasure, Love, Fame, Riches: they are but temporary disguises for lasting realities — Pain, Grief, Shame, Poverty. The fairy said true; in all her store there was but one gift which was precious, only one that was not valueless. How poor and cheap and mean I know those others now to be, compared with that inestimable one, that dear and sweet and kindly one, that steeps in dreamless and enduring sleep the pains that persecute the body, and the shames and griefs that eat the mind and heart. Bring it! I am weary, I would rest.”

CHAPTER V

The fairy came, bringing again four of the gifts, but Death was wanting. She said:     “I gave it to a mother’s pet, a little child. It was ignorant, but trusted me, asking me to choose for it. You did not ask me to choose.””Oh, miserable me! What is left for me?””What not even you have deserved: the wanton insult of Old Age.”

 

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Novels Make Lousy Gifts (But We Should Give Them Anyway)

Novels make lousy gifts.

Now, if you have even a passing acquaintance with this little blog, you know that I love novels, that Biblioklept primarily focuses on novels, and that I love books in general. I am not anti-novel or anti-giving-novels-as-gifts. Send me a novel as a gift. I will appreciate it (or trade it toward another book, which is kinda sorta a form of appreciation).

I went to my favorite bookstore today, in fact, to buy some books for Christmas presents. But I restrained myself from picking up novels as gifts.

If you love books like I do, I’m sure that some of your most favorite gifts ever have been novels. Some of my most favorite gifts have been novels. The remaindered copy of The Lord of the Rings (from the South Barwon Library that some friends of the family gave me on Dec. 5th, 1990 when we visited Melbourne (the one in Australia, not Florida)) is probably one of my all-time favorite gifts. I know the exact date because the nice lady who gave it to me wrote a kind note in book and included the date in her note.

I could never bear to get rid of an inscribed book given as a gift, but lots of people do get rid of inscribed books. This is a monstrous practice, one that attests to just how easily people will discard your oh-so-earnest gifts. If you spend a lot of time in used bookstores (I do) you will come across these sad markings. Because it’s close at hand, and I’m aware of its inscription, I’ll share the note that Jean wrote to Helen (no, of course I know neither of them) in my copy of Balthus’s memoir, Vanished Splendors:

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I am aware that the memoir of a pervy artist is not the same as a novel, and that, as my first illustrating example, I already seem to be losing my metaphorical balance, but again, it was close at hand, right near the Tolkien in fact (by the bye, Vanished Splendors is pure gold).

In any case, I think Balthus’s memoir “reads” like a novel, which is to say that it’s mostly big chunks of text that require time and energy to decipher, set against the backdrop of TV, internet, movies, etc. It has some pictures, but not many. There’s no gimmick to it. I’m guessing that Helen just wasn’t into Balthus, or, if she had a passing interest in his art, it didn’t translate into wanting to read his memoir. She certainly didn’t read any of it (yes, I have a special sense that tells me when a book has been read. This baby was a virgin). Every time I look over the book, I feel sorta bad for Jean, whose gift seems to have gone unappreciated (by Helen; not by me. I was happy to pick it up used).

To return to an earlier point: yes, some of our favorite gifts ever might be novels. However, most of the life-changing novels I received were rarely given as birthday or Christmas gifts. They weren’t gifts of obligation, if you’ll forgive the ugliness of that term. Most of the great novels that were given to me were handed along free of occasion, given because the giver thought (knew) I should read them.

At Christmas though, we feel obliged to give. Sometimes we get some great novels as gifts. More often though, it seems like that relative who knows you “like to read” gives you a novel by, I dunno, Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy. The worst though are those tiny little hardback books that are designed specifically to be gifts, little faux-tomes of faux-philosophy usually connected to golf or angels or some other bullshit (I was horrified last year when DFW’s “This Is Water” speech got this treatment). Anyway, if you like books, you probably just go trade in this bullshit toward the books you like.

But this post isn’t really about the problem of getting airport novels or gimmick books as gifts. This post is about those of us who insist on giving novels we love to people who we know don’t really love reading novels. Especially really big, somewhat (or very) experimental novels. Important novels. Those novels that we read and decide that everyone needs to read this to become a fully realized human being [gags on that phrase].

I think sometimes we give our friends and relatives novels as gifts because we love them so much and we also love the book so much that we are maybe gunning for an intellectual three-way. We want them to read the novel so that we can share in it together, discuss it, rant about it, argue about it (remember though: that’s what the internet is for).

What often happens though is that these gifted novels (forgive the ambiguous, awkward modifier) tend to lurk about the giftee’s abode, brickishly unread, like dour unwanted houseguests. They skulk at the margins of bookshelves or migrate to the bottom of “to read” stacks; a lucky one might find occasional fingering above a commode. They are ugly reminders to the giftee, signals of how he or she has failed to meet your expectations (your expectations re: 9 or 15 or 25 or 30 hours of her time). (Young people, by which I mean college students in the liberal arts, are the exception here; they probably aren’t going to read the novel, but they are absolutely fine with putting it out for show).

People like books with pictures though, generally.

Even though I think novels tend to make lousy gifts, we should give them to our friends and loved ones anyway, even on those days of obligated giving. We should still offer novels up like they were somehow a part of our own selves in the deluded hope that the giftee will read them and discuss them with us, and that the novel will become an internal, virtual, shared experience. We should give them knowing that it’s likely they’ll go unread, that they may even be a point of shame for the giftee (especially when we ask, “Have you started . . . ?”). We should give them aware that they might point toward our own selfish desires.

Even if a novel may be a gift that implies a certain level of intellectual work, it also implies a  sense of trust and respect toward the giftee, and in this sense, giving a loved novel is a clear way to show love.