51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2009
I enjoy reading books that expand my perspective, but this is one of the rare books that has truly altered it, or at least given me notice that alteration is necessary.
What served me best in reading this book was the fact that it was one of only two I brought for a very long trip. This meant that I had plenty of time and less reason to be distracted. With this time I was able to pace myself through a somewhat slow beginning, tolerate the re-telling of some stories with which I was already familiar, and, by the end of Part 1, be willing to write a 4-star review of how amazing it was that Lewis Hyde could have so presciently defined the logic and sensibilities of the free software and free culture movements that would blossom within ten years of the book being published. His telling of the real establishment of capitalism--that begin with Martin Luther rather than Adam Smith, and the concomitant destruction of charitable customs in Western nations provide a far more cogent explanation of both the moral bankruptcy and the actual bankruptcy of globalism than I've heard in more than one hundred hours of NPR news stories. And his explanations are spot-on for what I am seeing as a person who is involved with, and invests in, community development and sustainability. Indeed, I think it would make especially good reading in faith communities that also have a social community mission.
Then Mr. Hyde lets the other shoe drop: "the gift" describes not only the cultural practices that made economies flourish under conditions beyond the abilities or cares of capitalism, but also the human practices that enable the "genius" of creativity to flourish. The depth of his insights are staggering, and in the end they recontextualized a good portion of my own liberal arts education.
I am delighted to have read it, and look forward to applying its lessons to everything I do going forward, starting with buying enough copies to begin giving them away...
194 of 222 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 2008
This book has been published under various subtitles since it first appeared in 1983: "Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property", "How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World" and "Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World". None of these quite captures what it really is, and that's probably because the book doesn't know what it really is, either. Lewis Hyde takes obvious delight in his work's ability to defy categorization or the pithy summary. Unique books have that quality. So do many that are poorly written. It took me a while to figure out which kind this is.
Hyde's central theorem - that true art does, and must of its nature, stand outside the market economy, and this therefore presents a serious problem for the artist forced to live in a world increasingly subsumed by the market economy - could have achieved its full elaboration in the space of a single chapter. In the first half of the book we get that, but we also get quite a lot of wide-ranging argument about economics and the traditional tribal life of gift exchange. Not all of this is relevant, but it's all admittedly fascinating. Less fascinating are Hyde's attempts to locate contemporary examples. For example, he argues rather unconvincingly that the scientific community is "a gift community to the extent that its ideas move as gifts". Fair enough, but the extent to which they do in fact move as gifts is negligible. Scientists are among the most egotistical, petty and jealously self-serving academics ever born. Science isn't about sharing ideas, or not only that. It's about promoting "my ideas" and having "my name" forever associated with them. It's about personal prestige and glory. Ask any scientist how he or she would feel about all work being published in journals anonymously, and used thereafter without attribution.
The second half of the book is given over to two long essays on poets, and here Hyde - a poet himself - is clearly on stronger ground. One is a very engaging treatment of Walt Whitman which traces elements of "the gift" idea through his poetry and sad personal life, though for some inexplicable reason Hyde doesn't quite want to state clearly what he constantly implies: that Whitman's charitable works had a good deal more sublimated homosexuality in them than they did Christian love for his fellow man. The other is an interesting analysis of Ezra Pound which traces the arc of his genius and generosity, and yet doesn't hold back from depicting him as a frustrated bigot and fascist lunatic who only recanted his vile "suburban prejudice" (anti-Semitism) at the very end.
The conclusion and afterword link elements of the gift argument to the support for the arts in postwar America and its relationship to the Cold War.
Margaret Atwood overstated the case when she apparently called this book "a masterpiece". It's very good, but it isn't that. It's overlong, weirdly structured, and in places poorly argued. Hyde often makes huge leaps in order to connect the "evidence" with his argument, or asks us to assume an assertion is true and then builds a case on the assertion without ever coming back to prove it. Disappointingly, there is very little synthesis here, nothing that binds all of these ideas into a consistent argument - and very little in the way of recommendations about how art might flourish in a market economy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. I came away from this book uplifted and refreshed, with a whole new way of looking at Whitman and Pound, and a new way of looking at art's place in the world. There really is no place for art in the market economy, and that's probably why art will outlive it. There is something primal and fundamentally human in art and "the gift" economy on which it relies. Both are necessary functions of human life.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2012
I received "The Gift" from a very gifted friend as a gift. And indeed, the book is filled to the brim with all manner of cross-references to gifting and gift-exchanging and giftedness, set in opposition to marketing, selling, and getting.
But by the time I finished, I was left wondering what the point was. All this anthropological evidence of ritual gift-giving, the economic history of Europe, the psychological analysis of Whitman & Pond, written by someone who is neither anthropologist, economist, historian or psychologist, and all for what?
Mr. Hyde devotes more than a hundred pages of his book to the subject of usury, as though that were at the root of the problem, and yet here's what's at the bottom of p. 355 (in a footnote! no less) of the final page of his long essay on Pound, just before his Conclusion: "One of Pound's last pieces of writing was a clarification: "Re USURY, I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause. The cause is AVARICE."
A "clarification" that Mr. Hyde appears to have ignored throughout his own book, which is indeed out of focus, full of eddies of cloudy, dense, abstruse passages that circle about and seem to be going somewhere, but don't.
45 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2008
I may do an actual review later after some more reading, but some people may want to know, as I did, what relationship this book has to some other slightly differently named books by Lewis Hyde that were published under starting name "The Gift".
On the copyright page it states: Originally published in hardcover as "The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property" in a slightly different form in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and published in paperback in a slightly different form in the United states by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York in 1983.
Update #1: This edition has a three page preface from 2007. It also has a 16 page chapter from 2007 entitled "On Being Good Ancestors: Afterword to the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition".
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2010
This beautifully written book seems like poetry 'what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed' yet it deals with a pragmatic issue: the issue of reward for art and the role of money. For anyone working in a creative field it is enormously cathartic and empowering as it explores almost simultaneously how essential and irrelevant money is within a creatively productive life. For anyone not working creatively, albeit profitably, it is a spur to question the worth of what they are doing.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2009
This book is an eye opener. It's not just about how creative endeavors are affected by modern market society, it's about how we got here, and what it means to live in a market-driven world. It does not bash capitalism; but it gives a very accessible overview of how non-market societies used to operate, and suggests that it is still possible to strike a balance between treating art (or anything else) as commodity and as a gift. Highly recommended for anyone, not just artistic types.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2010
I am a musician and write songs. This book opened a new way of understanding the creative process. Very well researched and documented. Highly recommended!!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2014
I felt I needed to write a review to counter the negative ones here. Any book that calls the zeitgeist into question is bound to draw confusion and pushback. I've bought this book three times because I give it to friends who don't always give it back. That's okay: this was and is a profound touchstone for me (and for a generation of writers who knew Hyde from his Minnesota days). I recommend it to artists who wonder how their gifts may be appeciated for their worth, if not always always their fair value in a modern economy. Some of the reviewers' gripes probably owe to the fact this is a dense, dense book. Hyde's ideas build and spiral through varied concrete examples drawn from anthropology, open-source programming, poetry, and pure versus applied sciences. Hyde also shows balance; he recognizes that fees-for-services are useful when we simply don't care about a long-term relationship with the producer--but a certain spirit is lost, too, in the case of so many dead objects we bought but which now crowd the attic. Having just reread the book again, I can say it not only has aged well, but the Great Recession and the rise of the sharing economy lend an even greater resonance (in fact, the anniversary material in the newer edition is less striking than the original). For me, the most moving chapters are those in the second half on Whitman and Pound, who illustrate how the gift can circulate to the benefit of a nation or, traded for willpower, lead to soul's rot. Truly, artists should buy the book just for the cautionary tale on Pound. Here and there, the book's prose rises to a level of poetry that astonishes me more than on the first reading, where I was just wrestling with the ideas and their implications. This book saves me from choosing will over gift.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2013
This book has done more to add to my insight into the human experience than any other this year. Hyde explores the difference between the gift society in anthropological terms, and the exchange society in which we live. He ties religious/spiritual life and the flow of gifts, sacrifice and the artist's vocation. He uses The Elves and the Shoemaker as an example of a wisdom tale portraying the emergence of a creative vocation, and connects the artist's creative flow with the sort of gifting that is intrinsic to gift societies as opposed to exchange society. The last section of the book on Whitman and Pound wasn't as interesting to me, basically literary criticism with a twist. Despite this fact, the first 2/3 of the book is filled with marvelous revelations on the subject of gifting, revelations that would certainly help anyone who's confused, frustrated, or just curious about the embedded human experience of gifting, which can be pretty tough to deal with in contemporary American culture as it was for me.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2012
Because the overwhelming majority of artists fall short of the success they desire, and due to the fact that so many of these same artists still consider their work successful in terms of its intrinsic value - as opposed to its market value - and often justifiably so, Hyde's book serves a crucial purpose in that it creates a context for understanding art outside the market. I know of no other book so germane to the issue of how one deals with the cold fact of financial failure in the face of having created work that has such meaning to the artist's soul - a meaning recognized not only by the artist but often by a small contingent of admirers unable to express themselves through acquisition. With so many toxic volumes dedicated to the nuts and bolts of financial success in the visual artists, specifically the "how to succeed" books that are full of practical advice designed to make small successes seem larger than they really are, Hyde's The Gift serves as the perfect antidote. It does nothing for your career but assures the artist that their life was not in vain and that their accomplishments may be judged more meaningfully beyond the reach of a checkbook.