“A scholarly, many-angled examination of what gratitude is and how it functions in our lives” from the bestselling author of The Rituals of Dinner (The New York Times).
Known as an “anthropologist of everyday life,” Margaret Visser has won numerous awards for illuminating the unexpected meanings of everyday objects and rituals. Now she turns her keen eye to another custom so ubiquitous that it often escapes notice: saying “Thank you.” What do we really mean by these two simple words?
This fascinating inquiry into all aspects of gratitude explores such topics as the unyielding determination of parents to teach their children to thank; the difference between speaking the words and feeling them; and the ways different cultures handle the complex matters of giving, receiving, and returning favors and presents. Visser elucidates the fundamental opposition in our own culture between gift-giving and commodity exchange, as well as the similarities between gratitude and its opposite, vengefulness.
The Gift of Thanks considers cultural history, including the modern battle of social scientists to pin down the notion of thankfulness and account for it, and the newly awakened scientific interest in the biological and evolutionary roots of emotions. With characteristic wit and erudition, Visser once again reveals the extraordinary in the everyday.
“An anthropological and philosophical account of how and why we give thanks. . . . All delivered in elegant, clear prose. A book to be thankful for—sympathetic to human foible, deeply learned and a pleasure to read.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A delightful and graceful gift of a book, for which any fortunate recipient will be thankful.” —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 "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.