The giving and receiving of gifts is fundamental to human societies.
Dr Nicholas Perkins, Associate Professor and Tutor in English, St Hugh's College, University of Oxford takes a deep dive into the theme and has curated a super summer show for the Bodleian Library at its Weston Library building on Broad Street, 16 June - 29 October.
Drawing on material from ancient Sumerian writing tablets to contemporary fiction for children, the exhibition ‘Gifts and Books’ explores the importance of gift-giving through books and across time, and how this apparently simple act reveals wider interactions, relationships and belief systems.
We all know about gifts: they’re the fuel for our relationships, they bring pleasure, but they also tell us about hierarchy and power, from inside the family up to international politics.
Writing has been used to record, discuss, imagine and debate gift-giving from the earliest times too. What special qualities does a book have as a gift? And how do the stories that different cultures tell help us to understand the enigmatic workings of gifts, from ancient myth to contemporary books for young readers?
The book accompanying the exhibition is beautifully produced by Bodleian Library Publishing and would make a handsome gift in its own right.
Gifts and Books draws on extraordinary books and objects from the Bodleian Libraries’ rich collections and beyond. It asks what this apparently simple act, practised for centuries, reveals about human relationships and their beliefs.
One example is the beautiful book written out by Elizabeth I when she was ten years old, and given to her stepmother Katherine Parr on New Year’s Day 1544. It mingles respect, affection and shared religious devotion, but is also part of a canny survival strategy in the dangerous court of her father Henry VIII.
Another is Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems, itself designed as a Christmas gift-book, in which the title poem explores the dangerous pull of goblin wares, and what one sister might be prepared to sacrifice to save another. We often give books, but they’re not inert: they teach, warn and imagine what the possibilities and the perils of the gift might lead to.
The book’s editor, Dr Perkins, also authors Chapter 3: ‘Donation and Desire in Medieval Books’. He details a wonderful manuscript which starts with a picture of a man offering a book to a woman, apparently a romance, with the banner ‘Prenes engre’ (‘Take with pleasure’) – a reminder that books can be a luxurious pleasure if we can only find the discipline to put our phones down.
Among the other contributors, who have all written striking chapters, is Bodleian South Asia manuscript curator and Tibetologist Francesca Stavrakopoulou who has written about the repeated narrative structures of Buddhist writing through the ages – and how they elaborate a tradition of giving wrapped up in spiritual meaning and perfection.
Each chapter draws on a particular perspective, including archaeology and religion, history, literature, and anthropology. The ways in which writing interacts with fundamental impulses to give, receive and reciprocate are shown to be universal across time and society.