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December 10, 2014

New Old Traditions: Daniel Palmer on Books as Gifts

Posted by Rebecca M

Daniel Palmer, son of the late author Michael Palmer, has a long history with entertainment. Since his early years as a musician, he has also enjoyed great success in the book industry as a techno-thriller writer. His latest book, DESPERATE, follows a couple's heartbreaking struggles with becoming parents. When a young homeless pregnant woman comes into their lives, it seems that they will finally get the family they've always wanted --- but her arrival also brings sinister pranks that may destroy them. Here, Palmer discusses his history with books, explaining a heartwarming childhood tradition of shared books that he hopes to begin again with his family.

I first came to know --- and soon became enamored with --- the work of M.C. Escher in the pages of a book. It was a tall book, the kind designed to grace a coffee table, entitled simply: M.C. ESCHER 29 MASTER PRINTS. My late father, the author Michael Palmer, bought it at a bookstore in Falmouth, the town where I’d spend my summers drenched in sun and coated in sand. Each print of Escher's work had accompanying text, many annotated by the artist himself, but admittedly I don’t think I ever read much beyond a couple paragraphs here and there. Phrases such as “the regular division of the plane,” and “the suggestion of an infinite decrease in size,” didn’t quite capture the attention of 10-year-old me. But the pictures held me spellbound, and evoked feelings that Escher himself expanded upon in that very text I never read.

Of all the pictures that I loved, and there were many, I was particularly drawn to those evoking some type of movement without revealing a clear beginning, middle or end. In one such lithograph, Escher rendered an endless cycle of figures on procession wearily climbing a set of stairs ad infinitum while a different set of figures endlessly descends those very same steps. I found this truly distressing in a way that made me want to reach into the picture to help those poor people out. Here they were, exerting, marching to go up, every step a struggle, but the climb was endless, and those on the way down faced a similar reality. Their never-ending journey was bleak in many respects, and seemingly futile. And yet I was hopelessly drawn to those images, ever hopeful, believing that if I could will it, I could somehow change the course of events and help those stuck in a rut break free.

I hadn’t thought much about Escher and those endless cycles until recently, when an exhibit of his work opened at a museum near my home. I took my family to the exhibit and was captivated by the original pieces I had before only seen in the pages of a book. It was a marvelous retrospective of a remarkable master, and we were all truly inspired; even the youngest of my children took a liking to his work.

Walking the exhibit, I didn’t think once of the coffee table book --- 29 MASTER PRINTS --- until I saw it for sale at the gift shop on my way out. It was in its 20th printing, but the cover was the same as I remembered from my childhood, and the same artwork in the same order graced those glossy pages.

Opening the book transported me back to my youth in a way that seeing the original pieces hadn’t quite matched. It was odd, because the actual exhibit should have evoked the same feelings, but it didn’t. Looking at the book, I thought less of Escher's technique, his composition, and more about the feelings I remembered from childhood. It was a powerful moment, enough so that I purchased the book for my family to look at and enjoy the way I once had.

And all this brought up another memory. Every holiday, my mom would buy my brother and me a special book to share. The subject matter was always varied --- Greek myths, knights and dragons, castles, animals, U.S. presidents, Lewis and Clark, etc. --- and always a source of conversation. We feigned disappointment at getting a book for a present instead of a toy, but sure enough, once the holiday dust settled, I'd crack open the spine and fall into those illustrations as if they were painted by Escher.

I’ve been giving gifts to my kids for years now, but for some reason never carried on the tradition of giving one meaningful book for the family to share. After my visit to the museum gift shop, and seeing that Escher book for sale, right then and there I knew what old tradition would start at my house this holiday season.