The second sense in which MacFarlane considers reading and gifting is perhaps a little more surprising, for it involves a metonymic substitution: his piece is also a reflection on the act of giving and receiving books; here, reading stands in for and as the book as physical object. The anchor-point of those parts of the essay dealing with the exchange of books is the memory of a friend, with whom MacFarlane used to walk and talk and swap books, who, we learn in the closing lines, died of cancer, and to whom the essay is dedicated, offered up as gift.
Common to both the senses of reading outlined is dialogue. Following the very brief etymological glosses given above, it is tempting to suggest that to read is always to be involved in dialogue of some sort, though perhaps one in which the interlocutors cannot be certain that each speaks the other’s language (at least not in the same way). Reading, on this view, might be thought of as educated guesswork, a heuristic response to a new schematic map (whereas the lecture is the curation of statements in a display cabinet; which is not to say that the lecture does not have its place, just that the economy of the reading the lecture are rather different).
MacFarlane’s slim book is tender without being mawkish; and, like the maps and paths he has traced for so many years, it points neatly in a number of directions without dictating the reader’s course. Reading this essay encourages one to consider – to read – the twin economies of gift and of friendship. Both involve giving and receiving, give and take, pull and push, of course; so one might say that a pure gifting, if there could be such a thing, would consist in a reciprocal act of giving and receiving without remainder or equivalence. By which I mean that true gifts cannot be thought in terms of value, because they do not operate in ways that give the notion of value any purchase. The gift is, of necessity, replete in itself, subject neither to credit nor deficit. Gifting and friendship are (perhaps) systems of exchange without exchange-rate. If so, then (perhaps) the one entails the other (which may be just one reason why the books for which one truly falls seem so often like old friends, the ones to whom, we feel, we are repeatedly returning home; each gives so much that cannot be quantified): objects are bought in the gift-shop when one substitutes money for gewgaw; gifts are made in the act of gifting.
MacFarlane’s act of reading is modest in its scale, far-reaching in what it may gift its reader. It is also a gift in a more politically urgent sense, one that cannot do without systems and rates of exchange: the proceeds of the book – which retails at only £2.50 – will be donated to the charity Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which provides search-and-rescue support for migrants endangered at sea.