Hardback exchange

My brother and I used to give each other hardback books as birthday and Christmas presents, books that we would otherwise not buy for ourselves, at least not until they were out in paperback. At first, long ago, we chose the other’s present ourselves, wrapped it and sent it, but after a time we began to ring each other up and ask what was wanted, then have it sent by Amazon. This because it turned out, without either of us ever actually saying so, that we didn’t read those books we had so carefully chosen for each other; some of them indeed still sit reproachfully on my shelves (I think in particular of an illustrated book on the history of the railways which I have still not read and cannot bring myself to dispose of).

     The only problem with having books sent by Amazon was that we did not see what we were giving; the whole procedure had become symbolic, an exchange of invisible goods. On the other hand it was always nice to get the phone call asking what I would like to have, thinking about it and ringing back with my order. It is very satisfying to get a new hardback, to own the new Ali Smith or Rachel Cusk long before everyone else. I can see them on my shelves, the Christmas and birthday books, they stick out above the ramshackle collection of paperbacks surrounding them.

   The last time I rang my brother on his birthday, 5 August, having three weeks earlier ordered the book about artists in Montparnasse that he wanted, he told me his doctor had said that he did not have long to live. We knew he was ill, but this information was terrifyingly precise.

     A few weeks later, not sounding very different, he rang to ask me what I wanted for my birthday and had it sent. And ten days after he rang me on the day of my birthday he contracted an infection and died, very suddenly, sparing himself months of nursing care and complications. When I went to his house after his death I saw the last book I sent him, lying on a pile with other presents. I don’t suppose he had managed to read it, but I left it there. I hadn’t seen it before, only he and Amazon had handled it, but I thought that it looked interesting. Our tastes in books were different but this hardback exchange we had was perfect. Still, I haven’t started on the last book he sent me, even though I chose it myself.

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