"The Gift" Turns 25

It is a cause for celebration that Lewis Hyde’s classic book, The Gift, is being re-released on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its original publication in 1983. When I first read The Gift, I was a few years out of college, making my way as a writer and activist. Rarely has a book spoken so deeply to me and brought so much into focus. As David Foster Wallace writes in his blurb for the new edition, it’s “the sort [of book] that you hector your friends about until they read it too.”

The Gift is not a splashy book. It is a thoughtful, deliberative, wise book that has gradually reached thousands of readers over the years, inspiring a word-of-mouth circulation that has produced a kind of invisible cult of enthusiasts. The book inspires such passion because it speaks to many elemental truths about what we now refer to as the gift economy and the commons. It describes the commerce of the human spirit through gift exchange; the ways in which this circulation of objects creates community; and the sharing that is indispensable to creativity. You can tell a lot about The Gift by its latest round of endorsers: Robert Bly, Margaret Atwood, Annie Dillard, Jonathan Lethem, Zadie Smith and Theodore Solotaroff.

Hyde is a poet, essayist, translator and cultural critic who taught creative writing at Harvard University for six years, and since 1989 has taught at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. You can read more about Hyde on his homepage Long-time readers of OntheCommons.org will remember Hyde as a guest-blogger in 2005. You can read some of his blog posts here Hyde has also been a good friend of the Tomales Bay Institute — now On the Commons — for several years.

For Hyde enthusiasts, the big news is that he is currently working on a book about the cultural commons for Farrar Straus & Giroux. As Hyde writes:

I am at work on a book in which I hope to offer a modern and American model of our cultural commons, that vast store of unowned ideas, inventions, and works of art we have inherited from the past. At present this legacy suffers from a kind of public invisibility, a lack of political, economic, and juridical standing. The free market is surrounded by full and well-elaborated speech, but the commons is not. It is therefore hard for us to reckon the value of our common assets, and hard to know how best to protect them, keep them lively, and continue to engender them. It is hard to be good stewards of a wealth so few can see or seem to care about.

Hyde describes his book-in-progress here. and invites readers to read a sample essay from the new book here.

I do have a quibble. Call me old-fashioned, but I liked the original subtitle for The Gift better than the new one. The original was “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.” For me, the idea of property having an erotic life — as in bringing people together — is a conceit that speaks with great resonance and mystery. Now, perhaps aiming to make the book more marketable, Random House has changed it to “Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.” This is more direct and accessible, to be sure, but it feels a bit unvarnished.

Don’t be mistaken: The Gift is not a utilitarian critique, but rather a poetic invitation to ponder some durable human mysteries. Recommended reading.