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The History of a Book as a Universal Gift and what the Romans Have to Do with it

The History of a Book as a Universal Gift and what the Romans Have to Do with it
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Palina Dolia

There are a few days left until the New Year, and in the head of each of us hums a disturbing thought – what presents should I make for friends and family? Socks with deer, tea and holiday mugs consistently appear in the list of universal gifts, but they always yield the seat to the most popular option. A book! Make some hot chocolate and sit back: now we will figure out how the book became a universal gift for all occasions.

The end of the year always becomes a special time not only for readers but also for publishers. Bookstores are overcrowded, people are happily pile copies for mom, dad, close friends ... In Iceland, a special complicated word was even invented for this – jólabókaflóð, which is pronounced God only knows how, and translates as "Christmas book flow". The term, however, also refers to the Icelandic tradition of exchanging books on Christmas Eve, but we will return to this a little later.

Let's begin with... a story

People donated books even before the books took their modern form. In one of his books-epigrams, the ancient Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis recommended the pieces of famous Roman writers as gifts for the December holiday of Saturnalia. If you don't know what to give to the ancient Romans, then the list of recommendations included Ovid's "Metamorphoses" (a version on parchment) and Titus Livy's "From the Founding of the City" (not all volumes at once, you can give one each year). In addition, among the options for gifts, there were also things related to reading – for example, a case for storing scrolls or even a whole bookcase.

Time passed, the Saturnalia lost their relevance and gave way to Christmas and New Year. Those became more commercial, but the memory of Martialis' recommendations did not disappear, but only grew stronger over the centuries. Ovid may not be the most popular author anymore, but a book as a gift became more and more common. In the Victorian era, newspapers even began to print lists of recommended books for Christmas – thematic and others. It is from here that the story of deliberately stimulating the sale of books during the holidays begins.

One such 1914 New York Times article contains an interesting phrase: “War is not the greatest phenomenon in the world. It cannot destroy Christmas... Publishers will give you the holiday mood back. "The article shares a list of “gift books” that are great to put under the tree, so if you don’t know how to please your Victorian friend, hand him an updated edition of "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. Or "Pilgrim's Journey" – religious Victorian kids would love it.

Fundamentals of Modern Book Gifting

Technology is striding forward, and over time, e-books are increasing their presence in our lives. But at the same time, we still don't abandon the printed ones! The research by Ms Laura Dietz of the Anglia Ruskin University has shown that readers still prefer to give and receive paper books, and the practice of donating and even buying e-books for personal use is still not very common. It may be because the e-book, tied with a huge ribbon, is difficult to put under the tree.

So, books today are more than just history on paper; it is also a part of our physical environment, almost some decoration. What's more, a bookshelf has a lot to say about its owner! And the book that you give to another person for the New Year can at the same time tell about your relationship with the recipient of the gift. Still, it is not enough to grab the first bright cover in the bookstore – it requires an individual approach. Where there is a long painstaking search for a gift, there is a great joy of the person that will receive it.

Preserving Traditions

Now, every New Year, hundreds of thousands of people give and receive books of all sorts and stripes as a gift, and there is not a single reason for this ancient tradition to die out. So why not support it? Indeed, it becomes more and more difficult to find "Metamorphoses" on parchment, but a nice ordinary hardcover is surely available. It's easier to pack and put a ribbon on it than to find a case for a scroll, and besides, it'll look more appropriate.

So don't hold back. You are not sure what to present to your parents, close friends, colleagues? Don't hesitate and grab a book. You will have to think about what book to choose, though, but if nothing comes into your head, the Internet is ready to tell you many great options. Including the National Library! Scroll through the "Professional Reader's Blog" (in Russian) and the book selections in "The Author's Point of View" (in Russian) and you will find the perfect book for a present.

Contribute to a good old tradition – make a couple of book lovers happy!

Internet Portal Maintenance Department



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