THIS ghost of Christmas past still prompts a shiver. It is a story of reading. It is not about gathering around a log fire to read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Our gatherings around the electric fire were exclusively on the occasion of dressing for school. It was cold. It was cramped. They resulted in the sort of bloodshed that would have caused Genghis Khan to wince.
No, this is the tale of a book. Once in the north of Glasgow, I awoke on Christmas morn to find my Rupert the Bear book, as battered and bruised as an inept fairground fighter, had been replaced by a shiny new edition.
It was Santa’s doing. His consideration was probably based on the realisation that my Rupert was so stained and marked that it presented a danger to public health. There would now have been a clamour for a vaccine to combat the various diseases Rupert carried.
So dirty Rupert disappeared to be replaced by shiny Rupert.
I railed and wailed at my maw for this act of larceny exacerbated by a lack of consideration over what an individual book represented. Maw headed to the midgie to do a bit of raking (translation: she searched the bins in the communal refuse area) and emerged clutching the original Rupert, presumably where Santa had dumped it.
I dried my tears, smiled at my old friend, and demolished my selection box. I was 27 at the time.
The lesson, never forgotten, was that books have a power and that the individual significance of particular editions or titles never wanes. This truth has continued throughout my life.
The receiving of books at Christmas was a staple in our home. Both parents were readers. The imperatives of the day insisted they find work at 15 instead of moving on in formal education. They thus decided to educate themselves. Books filled a single end and then a larger house.
The love for books was passed on like some benign virus. We caught it in our early years. It has remained deep in my being.
Symptoms moved from Rupert, to the Hotspur, to the Broons and Oor Wullie, to Treasure Island (the gateway drug to a life of benign addiction), to Alistair MacLean, to George MacDonald Fraser to…
There were always books at Christmas and still, blessedly, are. The family question of what to get Shug fr on Santa moved first through the usual tropes. “What about a personality? A bar of soap? A ski jump to fit on his large proboscis?” Oh how they laughed. But they invariably settled on a book and I smiled.
The pleasure continues to this day. A few months ago I passed on some recommendations of authors to readers through the medium (or minimum) of a column. I asked for tips to be returned.
The comments section, taking a welcome break from the deification or denigration of Nicola Sturgeon and a rigorous examination of my obvious deficiencies, provided some excellent suggestions.
My email account – normally preoccupied by a desire to introduce me to women, Bitcoin, and a blue tablet (I don’t need one as I’ve a new Ipad) – fairly lit up with readers punting authors.
Some were familiar to me but I had left them out of my original selection because I have the attention span of a wasp on speed. They should be mentioned, though. They include Edward Bunker, John Fante and Andrei Makine. The beauty of each of those guys is that one book will decide whether they are to your taste. They share a consistency of style.
There were others that I had not read. I set about correcting this immediately. So Monica Dickens, Magnus Mills, Eric Vuillard, Javier Marias and BS Johnson were welcomed into my Bearsden garret. They were entertaining and informative guests.
They were quickly consumed for personal and professional reasons. I wanted to add them to my list of recommendations in time for Christmas in case there is a reader searching for a final present.
I wanted, too, to promote the idea of a book as a gift. My mate, David, buys me a book every Christmas. I buy him one in return. Curiously, but obviously coincidentally, my book gift to him is one that I want to read.
The friendship has survived my oddities over the decades and the books serve as a physical tribute to that bond. They speak of loyalty and tradition and even a shared experience.
They can range in subject. They encompass both non-fiction and fiction. They are, too, part of that cadre of books that survives any enforced clear-out of the flat. All books are important, but some books are more important than others. The books given by friends and my children are sacrosanct.
They speak of a moment in time, serve as a remembrance of times past.
Their mere presence is a comfort. They do not need to be read immediately. Books endure, they do not spoil, they do not diminish because of years of neglect.
David and I have fallen into a practice of marking the books by year of gift. Thus when one finally alights on the perfect moment to read that biography of Steinbeck, one is both surprised and delighted to discover it is the Christmas gift of 2002.
It reminds me of that wonderful observation. A book is not just for this Christmas but for life.