The New York Times recently ran a story suggesting that books are not only the ideal gift, but that this has been the case for a very long time. The article points out that treasured Roman Saturnalia gifts included scrolls, or the books of the time. Books are the gift of knowledge—who wouldn’t want that? Also, I’ve been reading about the fact that money can be any medium of exchange as long as it’s agreed upon. Why not books? Being an American, it’s often amazed me how intellectuals are held in such low esteem in this country. We pay our teachers poorly, we mock those who read “too much” (as if such a thing were possible), and we dismiss what experts of many subjects tell us because we don’t like to admit others might be smarter than we are.
Reading, like arithmetic, doesn’t come naturally to people. We evolved to survive and reproduce and our brains have that prime directive. Along the way, however, we learned to communicate effectively and cooperate on large ventures. These ambitions required wrapping our brains around things like advanced math and learning to interpret squiggles written by somebody else. Kids, full of energy and needing to play, don’t want to sit down to learn these things. At least most don’t. In some parts of the world those who do take naturally to such things are celebrated. Teachers are venerated. Learning is revered. Ironically, in this country where some of the best higher education is available, we want to belittle those who attain it. We prefer to play with our guns.
Now that the holiday season is upon us, however, I think of reading. I keep a list of books I would like to have. It’s well over a hundred titles long. In a good year I can read sixty or more tomes. It’s an engine that requires a lot of fuel. Although in all likelihood I’ll never be able to retire, I keep my books against that time when I fear I might become bored. Or that my mind might start to slip. Reading is mental exercise. In my current writing project, I’ve been discovering new connections almost daily. Often in unexpected places in books I learned about only in recent months. I write these words surrounded by books. There are more in the attic, and more in the next room. I may not ever have enough money to retire, but if we ever decide that books should be currency—and even if we don’t—I’m wealthy indeed.