Lewis Hyde: passing along the key lessons from ‘The Gift’ that keeps on giving

The author about his seminal work, the impact of the internet on the art world, and why it is important to find your artistic purpose in life

Lewis Hyde. Courtesy Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
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Lewis Hyde is not the sort of author that attracts a lot of attention at a literary festival. He hasn't written a string of bestselling crime novels and there is certainly no entourage. With his thick spectacles, baggy shirt and unhurried shuffle, the writer and academic, 74, could easily have been mistaken for any other visitor at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where he spoke last month. But for those people who have read Hyde's books, particularly his 1983 work The Gift, he inspires a particular type of devotion.

Among writers and artists, The Gift is considered compulsory reading. Margaret Atwood calls Hyde's book "a masterpiece". New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Lethem believes that "few books are such life-changers". And Zadie Smith describes it as, "a manifesto of sorts for anyone who makes art, cares for it and understands that our most precious possessions are not for sale".

The gift of gifting

The central argument of the book is that a gift accrues value only in the giving. If a gift is to retain its value, therefore, it must always be passed on. Hyde illustrates this in an early chapter with a folk tale, in which a man and his wife choose not to share a roast chicken with the man's father. The chicken turns into a toad, which clings to the man's face, demanding to be fed every day. "The toad is the hunger that appears when the gift stops moving, whenever one man's gift becomes another man's capital," writes Hyde.

For people creating art, this is profound. It forces all of us to question where the value of art actually lies. As Atwood writes in her introduction to the book: "Is a work of art a commodity with a money value, to be bought and sold like a potato, or is it a gift on which no real price can be placed, to be freely exchanged? And if works of art are gifts and nothing but, how are their creators to live in the physical world, in which food will sooner or later be needed by them?"

A work of art might have economic value, of course – and Hyde is not opposed to artists making money – but he argues that it must also stand as a gift to the world to be passed on, either in its original form or as something else al­together.

The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Courtesy Canongate
The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Courtesy Canongate

"Hermes invents the first musical instrument, the lyre, and gives it to his ­brother, Apollo, whereupon he is immediately inspired to invent a second musical instrument, the pipes," he writes. One gift leads to an­other and so we progress. Added to this, unlike other commodities, art does not depreciate with circulation. Quite the opposite, the circulation is what makes the endeavour worthwhile. We write to be read, if you like.

The lessons we use today 

In the 36 years since Hyde wrote The Gift, the questions he poses have become increasingly pertinent. The arrival of the internet in the 1990s has ensured that we must think ever more ­carefully about how we value art and how we want to repay its creators, ­economically or other­wise.

"Internet distribution means you can sometimes get the thing – the music or the book – without paying," says Hyde. "So yes, it has complicated the life of many creative people." The author is broadly in favour of copyright within strict parameters. 

But it is more nuanced than that. "The internet has been a tool for the creation of voluntary communities and, in a sense, gift communities that never existed before," says Hyde. "A shining example of this is Wikipedia, which is a model of production that depends on people ­donating their time and turning their own enthusiasm into something that other people can use. So in a funny way, the internet has affirmed some of what I argue in the book, even though it didn't exist when it was published."

Why do memories matter so much?

Hyde's next book, A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past, is due out in June. In it, the author asks why we value memory so highly in our culture. Could forgetfulness actually be the key to discovering inner peace? It is typical of Hyde to take the uncon­ventional stance, to dare to examine more closely the things the rest of us simply accept. Needless to say, the book is already being hailed as a work of brilliance, with the novelist Michael Chabon writing: "If this deep, poignant, soulful, ­inquisitive, gently tragic and disarmingly erudite book were nine times longer, I would still have felt sad when I realised it was coming to an end."

Hyde is the sort of person you want to seek guidance from. He speaks in a slow Massachusetts drawl and his movements are quiet. You feel your thoughts begin to uncoil when he talks and his advice to young creative people has stayed with me. “You have to think about what feeds your soul,” he says. “What will you be happiest doing? And then you have to find such a way of doing it where, if you’re going to have trouble and be poor, you’re not hurting yourself.

You have to think about what feeds your soul," he says. "What will you be happiest doing? And then you have to find such a way of doing it where, if you're going to have trouble and be poor, you're not hurting yourself.

"It's important to find some place where you can live ­cheaply and where you can have friends who are doing a similar thing, so you don't feel alone. It is possible, but you have to notice that it needs to be sought after. It doesn't happen automatically."

The Gift is not a new book, but it still has so much to say to us. "I wrote it, in part, to understand my own situation, in particular to make it clear to myself that the failure to earn a decent living by writing was not the fault of the writer," says Hyde, who was a struggling poet at the time. "It was more a structural characteristic of the distinction between artistic practice and other forms of economy. It was an attempt to explain to myself my position in the world."

The book reminds us that there are alternatives and choices about the way we live. Creativity, not economy, is what matters. “I’ve tried to write something that is not specific to a moment in time,” says Hyde. “It is more about what it is to be a human being and to try to live a life that has artistic practice in it.”

If you haven't yet read The Gift, make sure it is the very next thing you do. Better still, buy an armful of copies and give one to all the people you care about.