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December 14, 2020

Bridging the Gap

Liese O’Halloran Schwarz is the author of the acclaimed novel THE POSSIBLE WORLD and the forthcoming WHAT COULD BE SAVED. Alternating between the past and the present, the book, which releases on January 12th, is about a family shattered by loss and betrayal, and the beauty that can exist even in the midst of brokenness. Liese has so many wonderful childhood memories of giving and receiving during the holidays, but what she remembers most fondly are the books that were gifted to her on Christmas morning. While shopping in bookstores may not be possible for many of us these days, Liese is hopeful that books will continue to be an important part of our holiday celebrations this year.


Christmas shopping was a very serious business when I was a child. This was well before the internet. December then was a month dedicated to intensive after-school and weekend forays, going shop to shop, gripping a paper list of names, scanning displays whileChristmas carols played overhead, seeking the right thing for each person. Each present had to be a surprise. Good was something hoped for, but not expected. Better was something the person didnt even know they wanted. Something that told the recipient I see you. I know you. Here is something from my heart. It was a tall order to accomplish on babysitting money.

Looking back now, I realize that while I remember the affection that accompanied the presents I gave and received, I don’t recall most of the items themselves. There were Christmas-morning highlights, of course --- the bicycle, the microscope, the Get Christie Love doll in her fuzzy Day-Glo miniskirt --- and there were memorable oddities, like the neatly wrapped real bird’s nest the size of a quarter in my stocking (“I thought you’d appreciate it” said my mother). Most of the rest has merged into a joyful blur. Except the books. I remember the books.

JUST SO STORIES was the first book I recall ever receiving for my very own. I might have been three. It had a lot of words and just a few pen-and-ink illustrations. Perhaps Santa had mislabeled the package, or it was a plot by an exhausted mother to keep me busy. I was perplexed by it, but read and reread it with great delight, eventually coming to understand that it wasn’t nonfiction. Other Christmases brought more excellent books: CHARLOTTE’S WEB; A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES; volumes of Babar and Tintin; scores of Enid Blyton; THE GOLDEN TREASURY OF POETRY, illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund; fairy tales from all over the world; THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE, which I had read from the library but wanted a copy to keep; A LITTLE PRINCESS; THE SECRET GARDEN; CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN; ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL; and A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA. One year THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES introduced me to Agatha Christie, another year a four-volume set ignited a passion for Sherlock Holmes. In high school, a boyfriend gave me the collected Dorothy Parker and I was puzzled --- until I opened the book and fell into that misanthropic brilliance. To this day, he and I are friends.

What is more personal, and personally intended, than a book? Making a present of something that you yourself have read and loved invites the recipient to share that with you forever. I‘ve had the privilege of introducing some of my beloved childhood favorites to young relatives, and I’ve even had the favor returned, when one of my nieces would suggest a YA book to me. Sometimes I’d get two sets of a series so she and I could read in tandem. It can be a leap of faith to give a book (what if they have it? what if they hate it?), but the possibility of a glorious success is well worth the risk.

Shopping for books at Christmas is extra nice. Roaming the store with carols playing overhead, scrutinizing the lovely displays of lovely books…it breathes memory down the years to me of the old, loving holiday hunt. The search-scroll-click of online shopping cant hold a candle to it. But now it’s 2020; in a pandemic year, there can be no festive bookshop wallow. Luckily, bookstores have pivoted: they’re busy on social media announcing new books and sharing recommendations, they’re taking online orders and offering curbside delivery. Even in this strange, difficult year, books can remain part of our celebration. They can cross the gap between us and our loved ones, carrying a message perhaps more resonant now than ever before: I see you. I know you. Here is something for your heart.