Images by Sarita Rajiv
For Jan Johnson from Copenhagen, Denmark, the best gift she received was a simple paperback book from a friend years ago. Jan -- a scientist and mother with a crackling sense of humour -- shares how a funny and sweet tale of evolution turned out to be the perfect gift that would develop into a lifetime love.
"Doesn’t everyone love getting gifts? Is there anything better than getting a beautifully wrapped, unexpected gift? But I must admit I am not the best at picking out a present, or the wrapping of it if I am honest. While I was straining to think of the perfect gift for someone recently, I remembered that a simple and inexpensive paperback book that I consider the best gift I have ever received. I can easily recall the gift and the giver, although I’m a bit fuzzy on the reason for getting it (was it a birthday? farewell gift? or just something she thought I would enjoy?).
For whatever reason, I was given a book that had a huge impact on me and introduced me to one of my all-time favorite authors. My first college roommate, Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, gave me this gift. Kelly and I met as juniors in high school, and she was a local in the college town where we met. She knew the ropes, the area, and had a level of sophistication (if you can really be sophisticated in high school) that intimidated me. After a very unsure start, we became very good friends that summer. The simple gift she gave me developed into a lifetime love of the author Kurt Vonnegut. The book is called simply, Galapagos.
If you are a scientist or have a passing interest in science or history, you probably know that the Galapagos Islands are the isolated group of islands where Charles Darwin made his seminal observations about evolution based on the diversity of the local wild life. In Vonnegut’s Galapagos, having a “big brain” or being human is a detriment for survival. It causes us to build things that harm ourselves, makes us worry, enables us to manipulate and hurt each other, and, in the end, causes more pain than pleasure. Vonnegut teases the reader with his descriptions of the big brain handicap. He’s pointing the finger at us when he describes how silly human beings were (past tense in this book!).
Yes, this is the story of the end of humanity and the evolution into a happier species -- ones with smaller brains and less conflict. The impact of these ideas resonated with me, both as a scientist and a natural born worrier! My own big brain had been keeping me up nights and causing me much anxiety.
I hadn’t encountered Kurt Vonnegut before Kelly gave me Galapagos, and after reading this funny, sweet if not cautionary tale of evolution, I devoured as much Vonnegut as I could. He was an amazing author with an irreverent wit, clever and self-deprecating, morose and somehow uplifting. I just loved it. Galapagos is my favorite of all Vonnegut’s books, and I found from his autobiography, A Fate Worse Than Death, it was his favorite of his books as well! I reread that copy of Galapagos so many times that the cover eventually fell off, and I had to use a rubber band to keep it together. I finally replaced it with a newer edition so I could hold it in my hand without pages slipping out as I read it.
At the time Kelly gave me the book, I didn’t realize how it would stick with me. She might not have known either! Giving a book to someone might seem too easy, but it can have a profound impact on the receiver. Pick out a book that means something to you personally. Pick out something your friend or family member might not normally read. They may give it a try and find it introduces them to a new love!
Kelly went on to write her own story centered on a set of books gifted to her by her mother. The impact of being given a box set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books on her sixth birthday was profound. Her memoir, My Life as Laura, has Kelly channeling the pioneer spirit of a plucky heroine that she first read about in these books. Having now read her book, I can identify some of those qualities about books that spark your imagination and impact your life for the better."
Thank you Jan for sharing this lovely gift story with us. I’m sure your friend would be thrilled to know how her simple gift grew into a gift of a lifetime. She chose well!
For those of you who’d like to share your gift stories, write in. I’d love to hear from you.
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