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December 18, 2017

Lauren Willig: A Book That No Man Could Read

Posted by tom

Lauren Willig is the bestselling author of the Pink Carnation series and several stand-alone works of historical fiction, the latest of which is THE ENGLISH WIFE, which releases on January 9th. In her Holiday Blog post, Lauren recalls a trip to Tucson that she and her then-boyfriend took between Christmas and New Year’s in 2011, during which he presented her with an odd gift: a biography of Charles II with the pages glued together. Why was this book that no one could read the most memorable gift Lauren has ever received? Read on to find out the heartwarming answer.

When I was little, I had a record of English nursery rhymes. All those heartwarming classics about old men who wouldn’t say their prayers being kicked downstairs, dames slaughtering their geese and baking their pies, and old men going to bed, clunking their heads, and not getting up in the morning. (Really, these songs are very hard on old men and geese.) But my very favorite --- even better than Wee Willie Winkie and that rogue, Willy Wood, who eats up all the good cream cheese and chokes upon the haggis bags --- was the riddle song.

I had four brothers over the seas…/ And they each sent a present unto me…./  The first sent a goose without a bone…/ The second sent a cherry without a stone.

And so it goes, up to the fourth, who sent a book that no man could read, which always struck me as a rather maddening gift --- up until the Christmas of 2011.

‘Twas the day after Christmas, and my then-boyfriend and I had flown out to Tucson for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. In the hotel was a giant Christmas teepee and gingerbread cacti; outside, oranges and grapefruits hung like ornaments on citrus trees decorated with fairy lights. It was Christmas and not Christmas, familiar and strange.

But warm. Warm was good. After a New York winter, I approved of warm.

Which was why I found it quite so odd when my boyfriend insisted that we go up Mount Lemmon to the ski slope. Let me make this clear: unless a Bond villain is chasing me, I don’t ski. I’ve never actually had a Bond villain chase me, but I assume that in the instance I would discover hitherto untapped powers of coordination and lurch off downhill. (If you’re a Bond villain and reading this, please confine your chases of me to civilized means, like taxis.)

But my boyfriend felt strongly that snow would make the day more festive, so off we went, past the skiers in their goggles and the Swiss-style chalet selling cookies the size of your head, until we found an appropriately picturesque picnic table, the benches dusted with just the right amount of snow to ensure that your jeans would be soggy for the rest of the day.

“Okay, we’ve seen snow,” I said, patiently refraining from pointing out that we could very well have seen snow at home. My hot chocolate was no longer hot and my toes were frozen, since it had never occurred to me to pack snow boots for Tucson. “Let’s go.”

“Wait,” he insisted. It turned out there had been a present that had arrived late, too late for tree distribution. So I sat up to my knees in snow while he trotted over with a rectangular parcel that was very clearly a book.

It was, in fact, a biography of Charles II, who ranks high on my list of favorite monarchs (even if his taste in mistresses was occasionally iffy), and one I didn’t yet own, so I thanked him and made to flip through. But the pages wouldn’t flip. They were stuck.

In fact, they were glued. And in the middle, in a large square cutout of the Secret Treaty of Dover, sat a red morocco box.

I don’t need to tell you what was in the box, do I?

I’ve received many books for Christmas over the years, books I’ve read and forgotten, books I’ve read and loved, books I’ve meant to read that are still sitting dustily in a pile somewhere, but the book no one can read may be the most memorable gift I’ve ever received. (And, no, really, I didn’t see it coming or suspect anything. Yes, yes, I know.)

To this day, I still have not managed to read the Ronald Hutton biography of Charles II. It sits on my shelves in the Tudor/Stuart section, looking disarmingly book-like. I imagine, one day, one of my children will take it out --- and then come to me to demand just why we have a biography of Charles II with the pages glued together and a big hole cut out of it.

In the song, the answer to the riddle is, “When the book is in the press, no man can read.” But there’s a variant: “When the book is in the heart.”

So that’s what I’ll tell my children when they ask about the book on our shelves that isn’t a book: about the Christmas that didn’t happen on Christmas, in a desert filled with snow, with a book that can only be read in the heart. (Or in the library, with the correct call number.)

Happy holidays, all! May there be many, many books in your pile of presents this year. Preferably with pages that turn…