Here at Wordcatcher Publishing, we are big advocates for the transformational power of reading. A good book really can change someone’s life, setting them on a new career path or getting them into an obscure hobby they’d never thought of before.
For that reason, I thought it’d be interesting to tell you about the book that changed my life more than any other. Enter The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies by Marcel Mauss. Mauss was a French anthropologist and sociologist who lived from 1872 to 1950. The nephew of the eminent Émile Durkheim, he was bound for success.
Of course, the book, first published as a journal article in French in 1924 and translated into English in 1950, has many problems. For starters, the idea that any society is ‘archaic’ compared to yours is rather arrogant. It presumes that your way of life is superior, and can and should apply universally.
Nevertheless, when I first came across the essay while enrolled on the University of Cambridge’s MPhil Social Anthropology programme, I knew I was in for something special.
On the most basic level, Mauss set out was to explain why we give each other presents. After all, if you think about it, it’s a rather odd concept. Studying societies living across the world, from Melanesia to North America, his basic insights are accepted by social scientists to this day.
Per Mauss’ understanding, gifts operate according to three obligations: giving, receiving and reciprocating. We feel obligated to give because this helps up forge and maintain social relationships. This is since, as Mauss argued, borrowing a Māori term, gifts have a hau (or spirit). That is, when you offer a new friend a present at Christmas, that item – let’s say a copy of The Gift – carries a part of you with it.
Whether you take that allegorically or literally, your friend is subsequently more or less forced to receive your gift, because to reject it is to reject your essence. In doing so, they would be severing the social tie that exists between you. This is why people feign delight at gifts they truly hate.
Moreover, because gifts are imbued with the essence of another person, they never truly belong to us. To look at it otherwise, as David Graeber, the renowned anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, argues, when we receive a gift, we become indebted. This is why we have to return the favour.
To learn all this suddenly opened my eyes. Gifts are generally not the selfless act people think them to be. After all, our friendships, family connections, and relationships all hinge on us getting a return from them, even if we claim we not to care for this.
But whereas many might find this information disheartening, I was overjoyed by it. Even though it dispels a myth which is central to our culture, it provided me a reason why. ‘Why?’ is a question I ask a lot, and it had always bothered me that birthday gifts and Christmas presents seemed to have no purpose.
It’s a simple pleasure, but this book taught me the value of these traditions in a way I hadn’t understood before. That might not seem significant to some, but it helped me better enjoy the time I get to spend with my loved ones. That time is the true gift, and is something which has become incredibly important since COVID struck last year.
Perhaps now that I’ve gifted you with this reflection, you’ll feel obligated to let me know the name of the book that revolutionised your world. We can’t wait to receive your comments, and will diligently reciprocate with replies of our own!