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December 1, 2015

Elisabeth Egan on the Staying Power of the Season’s Most Underrated Gift

Posted by emily

We’re psyched to kick off this year’s Holiday Author Blog series with Elisabeth Egan, the books editor at Glamour whose debut novel released earlier this year to rave reviews. A WINDOW OPENS is about the real-life stresses of balancing a career with motherhood --- an act that becomes ever more precarious around the holidays. Fortunately, Elisabeth has a few tricks up her sleeve, including buying gifts that are easy to wrap. And what’s easier to wrap --- and relish --- than a great book?  

When it comes to holiday shopping, here’s what I’m not: jolly, organized or wearing an elf hat. In fact, I’m the exact opposite: ornery and last minute and plugged into earbuds (so as not to hear the infernal “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”).

Every year, I scuttle from store to store, selecting gifts according to how easily I can wrap them. Magic 8 Ball, out of the question. Yet another Connect Four? I’ll take it. I do look forward to going to the bookstore, though, and not just because the wares there are easy to wrap.

On Christmas Eve, when the stockings are hung by the chimney with thumb tacks, I walk around the corner to pick out a final gift for each of my kids. Usually, I choose one hardcover for each of them, something decadent that we wouldn’t normally splurge for --- a lavishly illustrated ALICE IN WONDERLAND; a boxed set of the Little House series; or a pop-up book about pirate ships with real string connecting the sails. One year, I bought diaries all around; another, a trio of my childhood favorites: LITTLE MISS BOSSY, LITTLE MISS CHATTERBOX and MR. MESSY. (Any similarity to their intended recipients was strictly coincidental.)

I wrap the books late at night while my husband curses over the assembly of a mini-trampoline or a doll stroller. I write little notes inside and sign them with the date. In our family, we like to have fun with gift tags --- a watercolor set is from Vincent Van Gogh, a soccer ball is from Hope Solo --- but the books are always from me.

On Christmas morning, we take turns opening presents, youngest to oldest. The kids used to dive-bomb the big presents first, the ones that held the promise of noise and batteries; now, they gravitate toward the little ones that might contain screens and power cords. But even as their interests change, one pattern remains the same: My books are always the last presents to be unwrapped, and the last ones left behind when we lug the tree out to the curb. Come to think of it, maybe they’d be more popular if they were from J.K. Rowling or Jeff Kinney.

In the house where I grew up, we had a shelf of my grandmother’s old books: THE SECRET GARDEN, THE LITTLE PRINCESS, LITTLE WOMEN. They were elegant editions, with gold-lettered spines and a delicate page of velum over each illustration. My sister devoured these books, but I preferred my literary heroines in jeans, not petticoats. (I still think Ramona and Beezus can take on those March girls any day, but that’s another story.)  What I loved about my grandmother’s books were the inscriptions, written in spidery handwriting on pages still clinging to their binding after almost a hundred years on a shelf. My grandmother was a beloved only child in a big extended family, and many of the books were signed by long-dead relatives, whose names I recognized from housewares my mom wouldn’t let us touch: Ann Donlon’s china, for instance, or Ruth Donovan’s crystal decanters.

But the books that interested me the most were signed “For Mary, From Mother,” with the year: 1915, 1918, all the way up until 1928, when my grandmother went away to college. Of course, I remember my grandmother and all the books she gave to me (especially JULIE OF THE WOLVES, which was a little bit racy). But from the books my great-grandmother, Ida Wall, gave to my grandmother, I also feel I have some idea of what she was like. At the very least, I know exactly what I inherited from her: a love of reading, plus a commitment to sharing that love with the next generation.

My kids will eventually read the books I pick for them. Sometime in January, I’ll find one of them, fresh from a bath, immersed in the young readers’ adaptation of THE BOYS IN THE BOAT. Or I’ll overhear a “teacher” in the playroom, reading THE MEANEST DOLL IN THE WORLD to her class of stuffed animals. The books might not be anyone’s favorite gift, but they certainly have staying power. Long after the antenna has snapped on the remote control car, long after the coveted hoodie has been consigned to the lost and found bin in the school cafeteria, my unpopular presents will continue to have a presence in our house --- and maybe in another house in the distant future. That’s the great thing about books: They live forever. Put your name in one and, in some small way, you will, too.