Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book Review: The Gift of Thanks by Margaret Visser - Non-fiction

Review: Gratitude’s Grace Can Be Itself a Gift By DWIGHT GARNER NOV. 17, 2009
Source: Online New York Times, Books Section.

“It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back,” Laurie Colwin wrote in her bite-size masterpiece, “Home Cooking,” published in 1988. “Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation. Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.”

Colwin wasn’t complaining, exactly. She liked dinner parties. But she would also have liked Margaret Visser’s observation, in her new book, “The Gift of Thanks,” that the word “host” is related through Indo-European roots to the words “hostile” and “hostage.” Dinner parties are complicated things, where obligation and gratitude collide and overlap — and sometimes crash and burn.

Ms. Visser writes with as much scholarly wit about dinner and dinner parties — what we put in our mouths, and why and with whom — as any writer alive. She was a foodie before everyone was, and the author of the authoritative books “Much Depends on Dinner” (1988) and “The Rituals of Dinner” (1991), each of which is as crisp and tasty as the day it was published.

The not-very-promising title of Ms. Visser’s new book, “The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude,” and the fact that it is being issued in November, will make some readers think it’s another snoozy, belt-loosening tour of America’s Thanksgiving traditions, from the Pilgrims to whether it’s the L-tryptophan in turkey that makes you want to crawl under the table and take a nap on the carpet after eating.

It’s not that at all. Instead “The Gift of Thanks” is a scholarly, many-angled examination of what gratitude is and how it functions in our lives. Gratitude is a moral emotion of sorts, Ms. Visser writes, one that is more complicated and more vital than we think.

English speakers are obsessed with the terms “thanks” or “thank you.” We often say these words more than 100 times a day, she writes, in a flurry that many other cultures find baffling.

The notion that we should thank others is not hard-wired into our brains, but learned from our parents. For a child, she writes, “the first unprompted ‘thank you’ is momentous enough to count as a kind of initiation into a new level of human consciousness.” In people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, little words like “thanks,” she notes, “often survive the shipwreck of all other memories.”

Ms. Visser is deft and funny about how, in our afraid-to-offend-anyone society, thanking has taken the place of commanding, as in: “Thank you for not smoking.” She’s good on how a series of “thanks” and “thank yous” are signals that a telephone conversation is coming to an end.

Ms. Visser acknowledges that simple politeness is the grease that keeps society running and, conversely, how much hostility can build up among people when words like “thanks” are not spoken.

In Dante’s “Inferno,” she observes, “at the bottommost circle of hell, the ungrateful are punished by being eternally frozen in the postures of deference they had failed to perform during their lifetimes: trapped rigid in enveloping ice, they stand erect or upside down, lie prone, or bow face to feet.”

In “The Gift of Thanks,” however, Ms. Visser is most interested in the kind of gratitude that is not compulsory or self-interested. She writes about the humility required to be genuinely grateful, and the essential ability to climb out of one’s own head.

“Gratitude is always a matter of paying attention,” she writes, of “deliberately beholding and appreciating the other.”

Gratitude is, fundamentally, about not taking things for granted, a kind of worldview. “Gratitude arises from a specific circumstance — being given a gift or done a favor — but depends less upon that,” Ms. Visser writes, “than on the receiver’s whole life, her character, upbringing, maturity, experience, relationships with others, and also on her ideals, including her idea of the sort of person she is or would like to be.”

Giving and receiving create “alternating superiors and inferiors,” she notes, and it’s a fluid and shifting way of being that not everyone is comfortable with. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it: “We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten.”

Margaret Visser being Margaret Visser, she does swing back around, in “The Gift of Thanks,” to food. “Children in our culture learn manners at the dining table, and not manners only,” she writes. Our ability to feel and express gratitude gets its start there.

She has a few tart things to say about dinner parties. Failing to respond to an invitation is itself a response, she points out, “and a hostile one.” She adds: “Invitations should be extended to hosts fairly soon after dinner parties have taken place, and people invited must come unless they offer excellent excuses.”

On the other hand, you can’t invite someone back too quickly. “Instant return has a whiff of payment about it, of reluctance to accept a moral debt,” she writes, adding, “One is supposed to savor the gift, think about it, spend time remembering the person who gave it.”

At 393 dense pages of text, “The Gift of Thanks” is too much of a good thing, a bit more of a gift than you desire. Ms. Visser has not brought a shapely cake to our door; she has brought the contents of a bakery. She writes clearly, yet her paragraphs bog down; she tends to give two or three examples to illuminate her points when one would do. She also manages to avoid entirely the debate, a lively one during a recession, over the devilish moral quandary of re-gifting.

I’m not sorry to have spent a few hours with Ms. Visser’s new book. But will I wrap up copies for friends, or want to read it again? To that, at least — thanks, but no thanks.

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