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The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude
The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude
Margaret Visser
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009
464 pp., 27.00

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Douglas Wilson

Thanks for the Thanks

In praise of gratitude.

The most appropriate way to begin a review of a book like this is by giving thanks for it. The Gift of Thanks is more a collection of micro-arguments and discursive observations on various aspects of gratitude than it is a sustained argument from front to back, and yet the end result is extremely satisfying. In it, Margaret Visser discusses the subject of gifts and gratitude from the standard angles, and also from a number of angles we would perhaps never have thought of. In a book like this, you should not be surprised to find a discussion of Christmas presents, for example. But Visser spends a good bit of time on why we spend so much energy on wrapping them all up. What is the thinking behind brightly colored paper going around the outside of a gift? Why is a minor industry dedicated to the production of wrapping paper? One of the pleasures of a book like this is that—without warning—you find yourself in the middle of interesting discussions of things you have done countless times, and yet without reflecting on what you were doing and why. And some of the things we do are so striking and odd that it is remarkable that we have never thought about why.

Visser discusses the practice of tipping, and what it means and represents. Why do we tip barbers, but not dentists, even though both of them have us sit in their chair while they do things to our head? What are the hierarchical assumptions embedded in tipping? After all, we tip down and not up. Why do we tip the way we do? Why are tips given immediately? Why do tips consist of money? Why do tips end a relationship instead of beginning one? In the course of this chapter, Visser cites one study of tipping, where customers in a restaurant are treated in different ways by the staff. "All kinds of ingenious experiments have been contrived whereby servers, secretly directed and monitored by the scientists, have elicited tips from diners." What a grand idea. The idea of a pack of social scientists with clipboards ...

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