Terry Prone: Christmas is Hardback HQ - read the room

Just like the post-Christmas Day dinners, it's good to have leftover reads to sustain you while you work your way through the hardbacks people gave you as gifts
Terry Prone: Christmas is Hardback HQ - read the room

That’s the thing about being given books at this time of the year. It’s more flattering to the recipient because of the implication that they own a sensibility wider than getting plastered. 

The myth about Christmas leftovers is that we all hate them. We complain about our situation as we soldier through cold turkey, folding it with stuffing into sandwiches and enlivening it with tossed crisps. That consumed, we then sling a thick slice of plum pudding into the microwave and force ourselves to consume it with the custard that’s left in the packet and feel at once virtuous (using up all the food) and resentful (because it’s simultaneously so calorific and boring).

 The sheer scale of the refrigerated turkey and ham becomes a threat, speaking to the past, or what we wish was past, rather than to the future. 

Edibles weary like guests overstaying their stuffed welcome, whereas reading matter of any kind on any platform is filled with promise — and a good reason to be grateful for food that requires minimal preparation. 

Let’s be honest. If you want to do justice to your post-Stephen's Day replete-with-reflections copy of the Examiner, then not having to cook is a blessing. 

It’s much the same if you are a book reader — having leftovers to sustain you while you work your way through the hardbacks people gave you as gifts adds a note of serenity and comfort to your day. Not only do you have seasonal permission to skive off, but you won’t starve while you do licenced idling.

That’s the thing about being given books at this time of the year. It’s more flattering to the recipient because of the implication that they own a sensibility wider than getting plastered. 

It further flatters the recipient because choosing a book demands the devotion of a certain amount of time and thought, not to mention money, although generosity needs the reinforcement of taking the 'Buy one Get One Half Off' sticker off the front cover in case the recipient goes looking for the second. 

Hardback HQ

Because it looks a bit mean to give a paperback: Christmas is Hardback HQ. 

The heft and promise of a thick hardback is unequalled for some of us, although exceptions happen. My contrarian sister, for example, wants only paperbacks, because she reads in bed and likes to nod off, holding a book that drifts like fallen snow onto her chest. If it’s a heavy-duty paperback, drift doesn’t happen. Instead, when she reaches the point of luxurious dozing she gets it full in the face like a tossed breeze block and it wakes her up. 

Any sensible person would, at this point, set the book on the bedside table and turn out the light, but she starts to read again, so the ritual continues and she ends up with what might be called repetitive reader injury.

Every reader has rules about the books they want to receive at Christmas. One rule is that no book is bad if it comes with its own receipt. Even if you’ve already read that particular book, it double-gifts you the chance to visit a bookshop in the coming week, this of course being the best kind of Christmas and new year, landing as they do at weekends, leaving a week in between for returns.

 Christmas presents carry their own rules. It’s OK to regift good candles or duplicate books. It is not OK to re-gift L’Occitane. We know why you don’t want to keep it. We know you’re too polite to tell the giver they’ve made a social error like giving sharpies to a toddler. We know this gift has been circling in the air like a plane rejected by every control tower, for several years. They seek the equivalent of Shannon Airport, where planes go when they have a gammy engine or a gammy engine or both. 

Just as Shannon is all-embracing in its welcome, it has to be assumed that somewhere out there is a human with the same attitude who will not only welcome a dud cosmetic gift but use it.

A statement of incompatibility

When you love books but reject one on sight, it’s not always a criticism of the book, just a statement of incompatibility. 

Books are like people. When a friend tells you they deeply want you to meet their best pal because the friend knows you’ll love the pal, you just know the pal is going to to be worse than the hazelnut cluster in a box of Christmas chocolates that did in your molar a couple of Yules back. 

You can quietly sneak a sweet into the rubbish bin, but friends-of-friends stay their allotted time and sometimes enjoy their awful selves so much, even exceed it.

Friends who wish books on you often do it because they adore the book themselves and project that affection onto you. It can be flattering. My friend in the west gives me copies of Carl Hiaasen thrillers. This is him overestimating my intelligence. I can never follow the plots, which may be because they are set in Florida and peopled by folk who have neither sense, loyalty nor values. Think the White House in recent years, only in neon colours and warm. Another friend sends sci-fi. Same problem.

Then there’s the “uh, uh” book-recipient problem. That’s when you have announced to all and sundry that you really love this particular author and convinced everybody that whatever else they buy you, they’re pretty safe with the latest volume from the franchise. 

A clear and present example is Lee Child. We love Lee Child. (A friend once pursued him halfway across the world to get him to autograph a copy of one of his Jack Reacher thrillers for me, and I still can’t get over it. There’s thoughtfulness for you.) 

Jack Reacher books still emerge, decades after the first, now largely written by Lee Child’s brother. But for some fans, the “uh, uh” factor kicked in a couple of titles ago: The sense that continuing to read the emerging volumes would wreck the memory of the earlier ones.

The other version of the “uh, uh” syndrome is where you are introduced to a writer by ecstatic critiques. A classic example is David Sedaris, described as an American humourist by people who know no better. 

One sample should be enough, in this case, to make any reader foreswear further engagement with the author, but you assume that it’s your fault. You don’t measure up. If you pay more attention, things will improve. You work hard at it and then, three or four books later, quite suddenly realise it’s not your fault at all. Or if it is, to hell with it. 

Having reached that point with David Sedaris, I gave his latest to a friend, caveated up to the gills with reservations. The recipient promptly told me that he would give me remedial teaching in the new year.

Until then, nobody has permission to talk to me while I work my way through the tower of books to my right.

May your post-Christmas be merry, bright, and filled with wonderful reading matter.

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