I read the recent New York Times magazine profile of Lewis Hyde with some interest. As it happened, I wrote a review of Hyde’s 1983 book The Gift just about 25 years ago as one of my early assignments at the Boston Phoenix. My editor at the time, Kit Rachlis, thought I might find Hyde’s uncategorizable mixture of literary criticism, sociology and anthropology intriguing, and he was right. (As the profession of editing moves into eclipse, let’s not forget that this matching of writer and subject is one of the subtle arts that we do not yet know how to automate.)
At the time, Hyde’s effort to establish a language of value separate from the financial marketplace spoke hauntingly to me — as a disaffected young liberal stunned by the Reaganite rise of free-market, anti-government ideology. The book’s themes feel somehow timely again today, at the end of the arc of history that began a quarter-century ago, as we scrabble through the ruins that said ideology has left of our economy and try to imagine rebuilding along different lines.
I was fascinated to learn from the Times piece that in the years since, The Gift has become a volume of almost totemic stature to writers like David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem and others whom I admire. I’d written that Hyde’s book would “probably be most read and appreciated by those who already grasp its lessons, the visionary writers and artists from whom Hyde draws so many examples.” It appears I was right. But I’m glad to know that the book has had such perennial success — and that Hyde, now a fellow at the Berkman center, has moved on to studying the concept of the “commons,” newly relevant in the Web era. I’ll look forward to his work on that topic.
In the meantime, if you want to read more, I’ve reposted that 1983 review of The Gift, which holds up pretty well, I think (though today I’d write a less involuted lead!).