Old-School Gifts: Where the Magic Is

UPDATED: May 14, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 15, 2013

Serendipity, n (1754): the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

For many people, I’m sure, serendipity is low on the list of words that come to mind in graduation season—way beneath words like, “Get a summer job, kid.” But when you’re buying gifts for the grad in your life, serendipity is good to think about. Two gifts in particular can deliver a lot of it, and I hate to see them going out of style.

Gift No. 1: A dictionary—the paper-and-binding kind that sits on a non-virtual desktop. Remember when every grad seemed to get at least one or two of these? My own graduation dictionaries still live in my office. I admit I don’t always use them anymore—getting instant definitions on my PC is just so darn easy. But when I do use a tangible dictionary, I’m reminded of how it helped feed my love of language and, conveniently, my vocabulary—so useful for acing one’s SATs/GREs/WHATEVERs. Unlike an electronic dictionary, a paper one gives you long pages of words all at once. Inevitably, you notice words listed above and below the ones you intend to look up—and you read their definitions as well. It’s… wait for it… serendipitous. Speaking of which, here’s a word I just learned that’s listed right before serendipity in my Oxford American: “serenata, n (ca. 1724): a cantata with a pastoral subject.” Who knew? Well, some of you probably did. And now I do, too, and I dig the smooth sound of it.

Gift No. 2: A pen. Not a stylus that comes with a touch screen—just a pen. I don’t know about you, but when an idea hits me in the middle of the night, the last thing I want to do is fire up a high-tech device. I’d rather capture my thoughts immediately with the Bic that waits by my bed. But using a favorite pen isn’t just handy—it may also (serendipitously!) improve your writing. As the neurologist and author Richard Restak told me recently, writing longhand forces you to think more deeply and calmly about what you’re trying to say. A pen can’t keep up with a racing mind the way a keyboard can, after all. “When we take the time to write [by hand],” Restak has written, “we engage in a more reflective mode of thinking, the first requirement for greater creativity.”

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you deny your grad that MacBook she’s begging for. As someone whose household has as many laptops as laps, I’d be a huge hypocrite to do that. Still, I can’t help feeling that grads (and the rest of us) could do with at least an occasional microchip-free hour of writing or research. Some famous writers would doubtlessly agree. Among those who work mostly or exclusively in longhand are John Irving, Stephen King, Philip Pullman, Annie Proulx and John le Carré. (I bet they all wield a mean dictionary, too.) And let’s not forget Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, who not only handwrites her books, but also equips her wizards with quill pens and dusty tomes. Her message seems as clear as the scar on Harry’s forehead: Old-school tools are where the magic is.

Which brings me to two more definitions that share a page:

Enable, vt (15c): give (someone or something) the authority or means to do something.

Emulate, vt (1582): match or surpass (a person or achievement), typically by imitation.

In other words: If the likes of Rowling swear by going retro, why not help grads take a page from the masters—and a pen to go with it? 

Melissa Balmain is an award-winning journalist and poet whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Parenting and elsewhere. She teaches writing at the University of Rochester.

So back to that MacBook…Impress your grad with the coolest of tech tools. Read it on SUCCESS.com.