In my family, on Christmas mornings past, you knew you could count on each person receiving two certain gifts: a book and a record.
Whatever the big present of that particular year would turn out to be -- the red, two-wheeler Schwinn bicycle forever fixed in memory as it stood gleaming before the lighted tree; the chemistry set with its small vials, test tubes and little boxes of compounds positioned proudly before the other presents; the wondrous telegrapher set with accompanying long lines of wires and Morse code instructions that, after lines were strung and distant contact established, quickly became the bane of every member of the household and of neighbors, too -- the best Christmas morning moment always came after the initial exploration of presents. A special holiday glow took hold as I slipped upstairs to my room, there to disappear while I burrowed myself in my new books. There were always more than one.
I don't mean to suggest that they were the immortals of literature, nor that I precociously, studiously or with grim immediacy set about the task of self-improvement. They were a joy and lasting Christmas treasure, those adventures, romances and histories, simply because of the pleasure they gave.
In that spirit, I have been mulling over books I plan to give friends and family this season. Again, as in seasons past, I am selecting them not so much for their deathless qualities, but for the pure pleasure they have given me this year and, I trust, will now give to others.
Three in particular come to mind. Two are by authors named Baker, and one by a Brooks. They have in common charm, warmth, sensitivity, intelligence and, in one case, a heartbreaking sort of eloquence that, I believe, will cause it to be long remembered.
The first of these to come my way this year was a slim volume of essays, "Lulu in Hollywood," about the early days of filmmaking, in the silent era of the 1920s, by actress Louise Brooks. I was attracted to it by a review citing the expert testimony of none other than William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, who began his introduction to Brooks' book by writing:
"It should not come to us as a surprise that a film actress can write, but, so narrow are our expectations, it does. We are even more surprised when it turns out that the actress is one of the great beauties of all time." And who concludes: "How it happened that this supremely observable woman should herself have become a brilliant observer of others, I don't know. Nor can I understand how this born center of attention, who might have been doomed to passivity, was all the while paying astute attention to those around her. What I do understand is that she writes marvelously, in a style that is all her own: direct, graceful, terse, exact, piercing, radiant."
Well, after such a buildup, I had to find out for myself if Shawn's tribute was deserved or if the great editor, perhaps indulging an old crush, had uncharacteristically overstated the case for Louise Brooks. He was, of course, correct. Her little book is a gem, filled with lovely touches of self-deprecating humor and insight and, so unlike the ghost-written trash that pours forth as confessions by other aging film stars these days, written with admirable honesty. A fragment only of her style:
"Early in the autumn of 1925, when I was 18, two film companies, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount, each offered me a five-year contract. Not knowing what to do about either contract, which would separate me from my dream of becoming a great dancer, I went to my best friend, Walter Wanger, for advice. How sweet he was then: a brilliant, laughing young man of the world whose heart remained very tender. He had taken me under his protection after meeting me while I was a specialty dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies and after discovering that my blase insolence was a masquerade. It amused him to find that the decadent black-and-white Aubrey Beardsley makeup covered a sprinkling of Kansas freckles."
The second of the books is by a newspaperman of long-established professional standing. Russell Baker's "Growing Up" is more than another journalistic memoir, a form also tiresomely overworked these days. It is an extraordinarily moving account, written with great taste, dignity and elegance of expression, about the breakup of a family amid the Great Depression. There could not be a more appropriate book for this season of new hardships for so many nor one that carries such a timeless message.
I approached the last of the books with the most doubt of all. It was by a politician, one who has displayed presidential ambitions, no less: Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee.
At first blush, its title seems to reinforce the idea that another political book, boosting another political career, has been loosed among us. They are surely among the dreariest, and dullest, sorts of works being published, but happily "Howard Baker's Washington" is not among that genre.
He offers us a photo album of Washington and its people, composed of pictures he has taken over the years as part of his continuing hobby and, as he says, "great saving grace." To Baker, photography "permits me to relieve my anxieties and to escape from the frustrations or the disappointments or even the exhilaration of the moment. Photography gives me the opportunity to establish fresh perspectives."
His book accomplishes just that and, surprisingly, more. It's a warmhearted look at Washington, sensitively and interestingly recorded, a real delight for anyone who loves this capital city. It comes with an intriguing text that Baker describes as "ruminations" about politics and politicians, presidents and traditions. On its own, the text is well worth the price, for Baker writes with refreshing candor and a nice leavening of humor. Interspersed throughout are striking passages that take you quite by surprise.
"I had an experience in observing the C&O Canal pageant where on Sundays volunteers dress up in Civil War uniforms ," Baker writes, "that I found almost too eerie to acknowledge. Watching those 'Union soldiers' around the campfire chilled me because it sent a wave of 'recollection' through me that I once had visiting the battlefield at Vicksburg. I'm more than half convinced that I lived an earlier life and that I was a soldier killed in that war. Whether or not such is the case matters little.
"The significant fact is that we live in a place and a time in which our connections with history are alive and strong. It is a history that extends itself into the present and future, and its deeply felt presence in Washington continues to reenergize the city."
What's more, he adds to an appreciation of the real Washington, not the false portrait so often depicted by current political leaders. That alone brings joy to this Washington resident.
On that note, may the holidays provide the best gifts of all in pleasure and peace for you and yours.