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Alchemy of the Word

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BOOKER PRIZE 2011 SHORTLIST
AP

Do you give books for the holidays?

When I was young, I was honestly surprised to find out that not everyone did. Admittedly, I came from a family that liked to read. But even taking that into account, I just couldn't believe there were people who didn't seem to realize how easy it could be to get your shopping done if you just stuck to books. Even as a child with limited money and shaky wrapping skills, I could still buy a mass market paperback for everyone in my family, swathe it in flimsy, drugstore wrapping paper and stack them all under the tree in an orderly pile... and in plenty of time to catch The March of the Wooden Soldiers on Channel 11.

Now, of course, online shopping makes the process even easier. (Don't get me started on buying books for one's Kindle, where it's almost too easy. A friend of mine recently discovered that sixty bucks worth of Barbie books had been charged to her Amex by her four-year old during a few inspired and unsupervised minutes online.) So if you're still looking for a gift -- a quirky title for a friend or relative who is equally so, a book that is definitely not on the "best of" lists put out by the New York Times, NPR, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and the websites that deal in such things -- may I make a suggestion? It's an anthology called Alchemy of the Word: Writers Talk About Writing.

A collection of essays written by the faculty of the creative writing program at Goddard College, Alchemy of the Word is about writing and would therefore be a great gift for anyone you know who writes: a friend who's enrolled in an MFA program, a novelist cousin, a poet-writing spouse, a niece who's an idealistic playwright. But it is by no means a classic craft book, one of those how-to manuals on syntax, word choice and three-act structure. No, it is also a book about reading, originality and influence, ambition, point of view, politics and activism, identity, community. It is, in short, a book by and for people who care deeply about the written word.

Why do I like this book? It's not because I'm one of the writers included, although I am. It's certainly not because I have made, or will ever make, a lousy nickel off its sale. But I am moved by the intelligence, wit, erudition and beautiful writing of colleagues I'm honored to know, whether it is Richard Panek drawing a connection between Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the act of writing; Michael Klein writing movingly of wonder and surprise; Elena Georgiou telling a ghost story and musing about the spirit found in everyday objects or Kenny Fries speaking of cliché and stereotype, both in culture and in literature.

Speaking of cliché, I know it's hackneyed to refer to anything as being akin to a gem. But I do know a bit about jewelry, enough to know that a good gem is defined by more than its color. It is valued precisely because it has structure, form and clarity; it constitutes a whole unto itself. And so I would argue that the essays in Alchemy of the Word are, in fact, gem-like: singular, delightful and more than worthy of repeated contemplation.