The Books I Remember Most At Christmas

Because we who read tend to read a lot and widely, we are often hard to buy for at Christmas.  Nevertheless, my family has done a wonderful job over the years of picking out books I would not have gotten for myself, books that celebrate the bookishness I started showing at the age of seven.  Here are a few holiday gifts I recall the most vividly:

The Hardy Boys:  The Flickering Torch Mystery–bought for me by my grandmother (my mother’s mother) when I was eleven.  Grandma never had much money of her own to spend, so this book was more important than most as a gift.  The story itself was also important, coming along at a time when I was ready to process a fully-realized novel.  Only later did it occur to me what else the Hardy Boys world represented:  the perfect male fantasy of action-adventure, without the encumbrances of a mother figure to get in the way, or damsels in distress.  That these books were sometimes written by women–who knew very well how boys think–was also a fact I learned later.

The Lord of the Rings and the 1978 Tolkien Calendar–given to me in 1977 by my parents, who did not understand what all the fuss was about until the Peter Jackson movies came out in 2001-2003.  I read Tolkien’s novel every year throughout the 80s, as a refresher for my spirit, and it never failed me.  In regard to the many Tolkien calendars, I think that, although Alan Lee and John Howe are now deservedly regarded as the most noteworthy artists of Tolkien, the artwork of the brothers Hildebrandt for the 1978 calendar is still some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Contact–Carl Sagan’s novel, given to me by my sister Mel in 1986.  When I first read Contact, I felt gypped by the climax:  Ellie Arroway travels twenty-six light years through a cosmic transit system, but never meets the Vegans, these extra-terrestrials, as they are.  Looking back on it, however, the plain truth is I misjudged how thoughtful Sagan really was.  As Stephen Hawking observed years ago, if we ever do meet a space-faring race on our own ground of Earth, we’d better be prepared for the end of our world as we know it, for the very fact of their arrival will mean that that they have a power source far beyond anything we can produce and that they have had perhaps thousands of years to perfect it.  The fact that Sagan makes the Vegans peaceful beings is an act of faith on his part.  Everything else in the book, from the building of the drop ship to the radical religionists who attempt to thwart the adventure, comes from the brave, erring life that we know here on Earth, and is splendidly done.

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