Lucy Caldwell: The story so far


After years of anguish, I've decided on my Desert Island read - the one book you're allowed besides the Bible and Shakespeare. I used to wonder if I'd take a compendium of fairy tales, or an omnibus edition of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series - my most treasured childhood books. Or some poetry: Yeats, or W S Graham, who wrote my two best-loved poems; or one of my current favourites, Mimi Khalvati.

But my definitive choice is Lewis Hyde's The Gift. Published in the US in 1979, and only recently reprinted here, it's about how a work of art - and the ability to create and, indeed, the act of creation itself - is a gift rather than a commodity. Hyde touches on fairy stories, anthropology, Christianity, Buddhism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, literature: reading The Gift is a dizzying, breathlessly exhilarating experience. And it manages to articulate something I had apprehended in my soul, but had not yet comprehended with my intellect, or in my conscious mind.

Many writers shy away from talking about the act of creation - and understandably so: as Hyde says: "When we give speech, we become a part of what we speak with." Fear of losing or sullying or squandering the magic is immense. And so writers talk about the mechanics - the time they get up, whether they write longhand or type, if they drink coffee or tea or smoke or eat digestive biscuits - but these are external paraphernalia, and superficially interesting as they may be, mean nothing.

This is how I used to clumsily figure "writing": it begins with the sudden, soaring, total elation of flying on a magic carpet - then the carpet vanishes and you are dull and heavy and alone and earthbound - and you must begin the tedious work of weaving a carpet for yourself, with only flashes of remembering what flying was like to sustain you in a task that is desperate and futile because you know your carpet will not fly: but because you have known, however briefly, what it is to fly, yet you cannot give up.

The Gift says this far better, and it says and explores and explains far more: but the magic - mysterious and sacred - remains intact.

It comes with accolades from writers as distinguished as Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith and Jonathan Lethem.

But I hadn't read it until, appropriately enough, it was given to me by my best friend. In the preface, Hyde says that when his editor asked who the intended audience was, he "settled for 'poets'" when what he really wanted to say was, "all thinking humans".

In the spirit of the book itself, I can only repeat and impart his words. Anyone - everyone - who thinks, cares, loves, should read this book. And pass it on.

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