Reading and the “Gift Economy”

Yesterday I found my way to this fascinating account in the UK newspaper the Telegraph, written by one of the women who judged the Booker Prize. The author, Gaby Wood, introduced me to a new idea that’s been rattling around in my head: reading as a “gift economy.”

This is apparently a common idea in the social sciences. Here’s the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia entry, links and all:

In the social sciences, a gift economy (or gift culture) is a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards (i.e. no formal quid pro quo exists).[1] Ideally, simultaneous or recurring giving serves to circulate and redistribute valuables within the community. The organization of a gift economy stands in contrast to a barter economy or a market economy. Informal custom governs exchanges, rather than an explicit exchange of goods or services for money or some other commodity.[2]   

And here’s what Gaby Wood says:

After all the work and the controversy and the eventual jubilation, what remains most present in my mind is this idea of the gift economy. When the purpose of the prize is to offer something wonderful to readers and to support writers whose work you admire, it may seem selfish to end on this note. But the truth is, 138 novels later, those gifts are still intact. Regardless of where they ended up in the final count, there are corners of many books that still feel as though they’re mine. And for that I’d like to say, to all of their authors: thank you.

I’m not quite sure I follow her logic — is she writing about the gift of the prize to the writers? It seems so at first. But she ends with a different, and far more interesting idea: the notion of a book as a gift to the reader. In the face of the current economic turmoil in book publishing, my first cynical response is that, yes, writers get paid so little that they often do practically give their books away. And maybe in a “market economy” as defined above, that makes us writers losers.

But look at the benefits of the gift economy, among them  “simultaneous or recurring giving.” Think about the last book you read that felt aimed directly at you. Or the one that granted you a few hours of respite from tedium or grief. Or the one that provided you with a new way to think about your life and the people in it. Gifts, right?

I don’t want to press this too hard. I am a professional writer, I want to sell my books, I need to make a living, and the gift economy, in 2011, isn’t going to help me a whole lot with that. I cannot always give my writing away. Yet at the same time, those of us who scribble for a living have to make peace with the idea that some of the rewards for our labor will not be either money or commodities. We might get the thrill of plying our craft; the enthusiasm of a reader; the simple (not-to-be-underestimated) treasure of being able to work at home, in pajamas, with the cat and really good coffee.

And of course, writers read. As research, as inspiration, we have to constantly consume what we aim to produce, and just think of the gifts we receive that way! In the last few weeks I’ve played baseball with Chad Harbach, turned red with Hillary Jordan, charmed horses with Meg Rosoff, fought a sad war with Emile Zola, loved and lost with Sebastian Barry. I’ve received prodigal gifts. And I guess what I’m groping my way toward here is the idea — which has to be central to a gift economy — that when you give a gift, you do not know exactly how you will be repaid. It’s as true for writers as for readers. It’s true on both sides of the transaction.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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10 Responses to Reading and the “Gift Economy”

  1. Linda Moody says:

    Love your post. If it wasn’t for you writer’s and your special gift, we readers would have nothing to do. I don’t see how you have time to read other author’s books and still have time to write your own books. I know you have a certain amount of research to do, I really like historical novels. Another question on my mind is: After reading another author’s book on a subject you like and may want to write about, do you have a hard time not using their ideas into your book? Thank you for being an author.

    • carolwallace says:

      Linda, you just made my day! I really appreciate your support. How do I read this much? It’s about all I do, really. (And I do read pretty fast.) Also I find that if I’ve read someone else’s work, after a while I can see the subject from my own point of view. It’s a pretty personal pursuit. Thanks!

  2. Lisa says:

    A very thought-provoking post. I think we non-artists can also get caught up in the old idea of “art for art’s sake,” not to be tainted with money, which is impractical and silly. Though I once listened to an author at a book-signing who talked about money the whole time – how much she had made from her books, how much she wanted to make, and how much she hoped to sell the film rights for, and that felt uncomfortable – like she saw us only as consumers. I never felt the same way again about her books. But I certainly want to see authors succeed and sell books – and not just so they will keep writing 🙂

  3. carolwallace says:

    Thanks, Lisa — it’s a mistake to ignore the commerce side, for sure. But once the mortgage and the tuition are paid, how many pairs of shoes do we need? I think your formula is right, actually: so long as we can keep doing what we do, a lot of us are pretty happy! (Though I do love my shoes…!)

  4. Lisa says:

    Or how many books do we need – I think it will always be “at least one more” !

  5. kathy lord says:

    what would i do without books!! keep on writing & reading!! i found your blog through your husband on guideposts. i am excited to read about what you are reading!

  6. Angela says:

    Hi Carol,

    Love this post! I spent the better part of last year contemplating this idea in re: my own work. For a beautiful treatment of this I highly recommend reading The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, by Lewis Hyde. I found the book in the Getty Museum book shop. It was a revelation to me and really gave me a place to start developing my own philosophy of practice.

    And while we’re on the subject, thank you for the gift of Leaving Van Gogh — I enjoyed it more than I can say.


    • carolwallace says:

      Thank you, Angela, I will look for “The Gift.” It’s certainly a challenge to figure this stuff out — and thanks for the kind words about “Leaving Van Gogh.” I enjoyed visiting OneTinyViolet, too!

  7. Pingback: The Reading Room « Persephone Writes

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