A wistful longing

Robert Macfarlane: The Gifts of Reading
Penguin Books 2017 (2016)

This short essay — just 34 pages of text in A6 format — is a paean or hymn to reading, giving, and books. In fact, one book in particular which he was given as a present, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. Macfarlane then uses this as a springboard to discourse on what moves him: teaching, talking and travelling, companionship, landscape and nature.

I can’t begin to grasp or comprehend all that the author has read, visited or achieved but there is no doubting that the writer of last year’s unexpected bestseller The Lost Words (illustrated by Jackie Morris) is someone who lives life to the full and exults in all he puts his mind to. In describing Leigh Fermor’s book he describes it thus:

I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles. It rang with what in German is called Sehnsucht: a yearning or wistful longing for the unknown and the mysterious. It made me want to stand up and march out — to walk into adventure.

It’s clear that he finds so much of what he comes across in his reading as inspiring. He’s not without humour; he declares that “not all books received as gifts are transformative, of course. Sometimes the only thing a book gives its reader is a paper cut.” But from being given books that expand both his mind and his horizons he makes it his habit to do the same, in the hopes that recipients will likewise find inspiration.

The back cover of this slim booklet tells us that all proceeds from its sale are donated to Migrant Offshore Aid Station. The charity’s mission is designed to provide desperately-needed search and rescue services to people attempting dangerous sea crossings while fleeing violence, poverty and persecution. Such migrants are travellers who don’t have the liberty to journey for leisure or pleasure. The purchase of this publication may therefore in some small way help a few of those who are in most desperate need of aid, one of the many ways in which reading can prove to be a gift.

13 thoughts on “A wistful longing

    1. You’re welcome! The only other Macfarlane I’ve looked at is the piece he did with Pembrokeshire artist Jackie Morris (whom I’ve met a few times, mostly as she’s regularly on the Crickhowell Lit Fest programme). Local bookshop Book-ish are trying to get The Lost Words into every school here in Powys.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting. I bought this in The Rye Bookshop, a store with a wonderful range of books, very colourfully laid out, and we were pleased to have come out with a wide variety of books.

      I’d assumed it was an indie but I now see it wasn’t: https://metro.co.uk/2017/02/28/waterstones-under-fire-for-opening-fake-independent-bookshops-6477835/

      I’m in two or three minds about these incognito Waterstones: yes, I’d prefer a genuine indie than a conglomerate Waterstones-Foyles (run by a man from Daunts). But in a town like Rye which has (as far as I could see) nearly 100% of shops independently owned, the bookshop indie appearance suits the local aesthetic. And I’d rather — pace Neil Gaiman — have a town with a bookshop than none at all, especially one with Waterstones’ book-centred business approach which gives local managers a degree of independence.

      Anyway, that’s all by the by — this is certainly as lovely an essay as you say.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m very lucky – the small town where I live has two small, true independent bookshops. One of them is successful – but they work very hard at outreach and author visits etc. The other, since WH Smith opened up next door, survives by the skin of its teeth – the owner recently told me that their business rates alone were £300 per week – that’s before the outrageous rent! Shocking.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Business rates are a mess—shops are the life blood of a high street, price them out with high rates and bingo! empty premises and the heart ripped out of a community and everybody loses out.

          And W H Smith’s, for all their take-it-or-leave-it reputation for service, apparently appeal to those who are intimidated by bookshop’s. However their discounted products must be more than challenging to the poor indie next door.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. I hadn’t come across this essay but love Robert Macfarlane’s writing and have been meaning to read A Time of Gifts for ages, so thank you. I have also been in two or three minds about the Waterstones indie’s. At first I was outraged, but I think like you I’ve come to the conclusion that I would rather there was a bookshop there and if it means an indie can stay open then that’s great.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hope you enjoy it when you get round to it!

      I’ve approved of Waterstone’s giving their branches a degree of independence, managers having a choice over their stock, staff dressing in civvies — giving the impression of actually being an indie while retaining the Waterstone’s signage and livery. I suppose losing the livery and name was the next logical step!


      1. I think it’s funny that in the ’80’s Waterstones were seen as the big bad guys putting small indie booksellers out of business and now I have a real affection for them! And good news if a small shop can keep going with Waterstones money behind it.


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