The Ritual of the Gift

Time magazine article this week notes that traditional ink-and-paper paper books are seeing a surprising spike in sales this year, as they did last year, despite the meteoric rise in popularity of ebook readers. The article flails for causes: “The holiday spike may reflect this year’s partial lifting of economic gloominess.” If that’s true, why was there one last year at this time, too?

Trust an economist to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.” As a student of myth, I’ll say, “It’s mythology, stupid.”

E-books are more and more popular, but there’s a fundamental problem with giving them as presents: you can’t put them under the tree! Tapping Mom on the shoulder to say, “Oh, by the way, check your email; you have a present” isn’t as satisfying as watching Mom unwrap a gift.

Gifting is a ritual. Ebooks are excellent, but they remove the process of giving, receiving and unwrapping. They remove the sense of a thing given.

Nearly all American midwinter holiday celebrations include exchanging gifts in a ritual context (the tree, the trimmings, the feast, and our particular religious traditions). Commercialism has only added one more layer of ritual (the hunting and gathering of presents) to the whole gift-giving ritual process.

What do I mean by “ritual,” and how are rituals related to mythology? Rituals are a special form of participatory mythology. They’re short on story — although Christmas is most definitely based on a sacred story — but have sacred symbols, chants and hymns, and formal, structured activities which evoke a sense of the sacred or of doing something special and timeless, passed down through time from the ancestors. Rituals are participatory mythology  in which we derive psychological and spiritual satisfaction from repeating cultural and family traditions. Rituals work better with things: candles, trees, priestly garments, churches, books.

A book is a peculiarly magical object. It’s a physical object. Within its pages, readers undergo a mind-altering experience. We see visual signs, but we hear them in our mind as sound. We disconnect our senses from the world around us to enter an imaginary world evoked by the book. For the time we are reading, we may suspend disbelief and imagine that subcreated world (to borrow Tolkien’s term) as real. Books induce synaesthesia, a journey of the mind to a mythical place which is not literally true, but feels real. Of course, most of these facets of book-reading are true of ebooks as well, but we do not experience them in the same physical, tactile way, making their stories seem more disembodied, less real.

For all these reasons, giving a physical book means giving a powerful, meaningful physical object. Step one for the recipient is to open the gift, to unwrap it. Step two is to open the book, to experience it physically and imaginally.

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