The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude

The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude

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by Margaret Visser

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An inquiry into what we mean when we say "thank you." Visser examines all aspects of gratitude ranging from cultural histories to modern customs including mythology, folklore and fiction.See more details below


An inquiry into what we mean when we say "thank you." Visser examines all aspects of gratitude ranging from cultural histories to modern customs including mythology, folklore and fiction.

Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner
The not-very-promising title of Ms. Visser's new book, The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude, and the fact that it is being issued in November, will make some readers think it's another snoozy, belt-loosening tour of America's Thanksgiving traditions, from the Pilgrims to whether it's the L-tryptophan in turkey that makes you want to crawl under the table and take a nap on the carpet after eating. It's not that at all. Instead The Gift of Thanks is a scholarly, many-angled examination of what gratitude is and how it functions in our lives. Gratitude is a moral emotion of sorts, Ms. Visser writes, one that is more complicated and more vital than we think.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Like a modern Ruth Benedict immersed in classical literature, Visser (Much Depends on Dinner) examines what it really means, in the course of human interaction, to be thankful. Her kindly book turns on itself in an exhaustive but continually engrossing fashion. Beginning with the assumption that “[g]ratitude must be freely given; otherwise, it might be a polite show, but it is not gratitude,” Visser asks many questions of cultures East and West and provides a plethora of answers. The obscured and deeper meaning of giving thanks is probed through such divergent cultural markers as the work of Georg Simmel and Dickens; the Bible and Proust; Japanese sumimasen, which is both a thanking and an apologizing, and C.C. Baxter in Bill Wilder's The Apartment; Plato's Laws and Seneca's massive treatise on gift giving and the slipperiness of saying “you're welcome” in today's U.K. What is tipping all about? What is the etymological relationship between “votive,” “vow,” “favors,” “grace” and “gratitude”? What might the gestures of courtesy—the curtsy for example—be? Overall, this is a delightful and graceful gift of a book, for which any fortunate recipient will be thankful. (Nov. 19)
Library Journal
Following the trend of her previous, successful titles (e.g., The Rituals of Dinner; The Geometry of Love), Visser again gracefully applies her wide-ranging learning in the service of fundamental humanistic themes. She examines the meaning of gratitude, using linguistic, sociological, religious, and other rubrics to consider such matters as why we wrap gifts, what we owe to our parents, and why Japanese speakers say "I'm sorry" when English speakers would say "Thank you." Visser is one of a small number of writers able to both use and transcend conventional academic scholarship to offer readers a truly liberal education. This work may be compared to Leon R. Kass's The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature in the authors' belief that everyday rituals reveal profound insights into human life. VERDICT Readers content to skim the surface will glean pieces of information; those able to invest more time and thoughtfulness will be rewarded with deeper insights and will appreciate the book's extensive bibliography. This will also appeal to those who seek greater cross-cultural understanding.—Lisa Richmond, Wheaton Coll. Lib., IL
Kirkus Reviews
An anthropological and philosophical account of how and why we give thanks-or, at times, resist doing so. Former classics professor Visser (The Geometry of Love, 2000, etc.), a deliberate writer whose lovely books are few and far between, ponders why it is that we are moved to say "please" and "thank you." Are we hard-wired to do so? Perhaps, for, as Visser writers, "in states of aphasia, or in people suffering from Alzheimer's disease, these little phrases often survive the shipwreck of all other memories." The author's investigations take readers around the world, perhaps most fascinatingly to Japan, where the need to thank prolifically and to extremes of self-effacing near-groveling is a deeply ingrained thing, an expression of a view that we're all in this together, the living and the dead alike, and that we all owe everyone else on the planet thanks for allowing us to survive. The Japanese way of giving thanks involves phrases whose literal meanings acknowledge one's inferiority: "This is poison to my soul," "This doesn't really taste very good, but please eat it," "I feel shame." The network of obligation a Japanese thanks implicates is profoundly different from the way an American might feel, and indeed Americans are widely perceived as a people who apologize without really meaning it. "Bilingual Hindi-English speakers in India thank more often in English than they do in Hindi," Visser writes, continuing her planetary researches before settling down to examine our own culture more completely. She looks at the expressions of thanks in Dickens's Great Expectations, the custom of tipping (which is abound up with hidden traps of social rank and equality), the perils of gift-giving, theeven greater perils of stinginess and other such diverse matters of nature and nurture, all delivered in elegant, clear prose. A book to be thankful for-sympathetic to human foible, deeply learned and a pleasure to read.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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