My parents always had a huge built-in bookcase wherever they lived (my father built them). They were primarily filled with the novels my mother had accumulated in her youth and all sorts of books my folks acquired as a young married couple, including museum exhibition catalogues, college texts, art books (my mother’s major), history books (my father’s), Horizon magazines (I have them now; they were hardbacks), National Geographics, old seed catalogues, and on and on.
This had quite an influence on me. I was reading by age three—the newspaper, according to family legend—and by six or so I’d begun tackling Mom’s novels. There was no in-between.
Until my eighth birthday. I had a party; neighborhood friends were invited. And one of them gave me Edward Eager’s The Well-Wishers. Aside from the Little Golden Books my siblings had (which I’d long since outgrown) it was the first age-appropriate fiction I’d ever had. I loved it.* It would not be an exaggeration to say I’ve read it a couple dozen times, mostly in the first three years of ownership.
It was a spectacular gift. (Oh, yeah, my dad bought me gift books, too, which is why I have read Winston Churchill’s four-volume version of The Second World War and Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf, thankyouverymuch. He also got me my first copies of The Lord of the Rings.)
I know everybody doesn’t feel the way I do about books. I do know this.
But if you’re here, you’re probably a fan of books too. So you may not need this reminder, but I’m gonna take the chance: it’s the gift-giving season, friends. And just as they say an egg (or milk … or liver … or butter … or dark chocolate …) is the perfect food, I would posit that a book is the perfect gift. :)
Yet how many times have you found yourself standing in the bookstore overwhelmed by all the possibilities? When I conceived this post, I asked my Facebook friends for stories about giving or receiving books as gifts—and got some interesting responses. Here are some things you might consider:
Don’t overlook the obvious: wish lists
“I have a friend in Texas who, twice a year, stalks my Amazon wish list and sends me a book for my birthday (June) and Christmas. I love it!” a Canadian friend of mine told me. “I always get something I already know I want to read.” Most online booksellers offer wish lists. Use them! Don’t forget to make your own wish list too.
Great books are always great: a go-to title
For some years I gave every high school or college graduate I knew Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig. More recently, I gave every cook I knew Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life over a period of three years or so. I thought I was the only one who took this seemingly easy way out, but the fact is, when a book is a good one, it cries out to be gifted. A wise and wonderful friend of mine says, “I have two books I give to work colleagues that are always well received: Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, a handbook on global cultures broken out by country (I’ve been giving this since I received my first copy eighteen years ago) and The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.” They sound great.
Spur of the moment, spur of the occasion
Another friend had this great story: “A family friend showed me a very old outdoor bathtub fed by a natural spring on her ranch. From the tub you had a beautiful view of the county. I though she might like to read The Baron in the Trees. She did.” I love this. Sometimes the right book just leaps up and shouts, “Me! Now!” and you’ll have that glow for days.
Everyone loves a tradition
“My husband always gets me a beautiful hardback Stephen King novel for Christmas morning,” one of my girlfriends wrote. “I look forward to it every year.” Who needs a surprise when you’ve got a happy tradition, right? One of my friends is in the process of adopting a baby from China, and she worried, on Facebook, about how she and her husband—white, middle-class Midwesterners—would help their child know and remember his ethnic heritage. A few of us bought picture books with Chinese stories and images for her book collection, and I can see this continuing as the child grows … a tradition in the making. Holidays are a great time for a gift-book tradition.
Starting out right
“My cousin asked for children’s books for her baby shower. I loved the idea of building the library early,” someone else responded. I love it, too, and have been to just such a shower. That said, I almost always give books at baby showers anyway—because I have plenty of experience. (Which is to say, after The Well-Wishers, I began collecting kids’ books, well into adulthood. Picture books in particular. I can still, at this late age, be delighted by a particularly wonderful picture book.) So don’t forget books for the kids on your list; there’s truly something for everyone in this category.
Eschew the self-help
Great advice from another friend: “Opening up a gift book about the latest diet craze is not a good way to start Christmas morning. Any sort of self-help book should only be bought by the person who wants the self-help.” Ah, the wisdom that comes with experience. :) Take it to heart, friends, and don’t give self-help unless the recipient has specifically asked for it.
Helpful books, on the other hand …
Gardening, cookbooks, inspirational and encouragement—even daybooks and planners—all make good gifts in the right circumstances.
First editions, special editions, collectibles …
“One of my favorite gifts,” another friend wrote, “was a hardcover first edition of one of my favorite authors who I had discovered well into her series; I only had paperbacks of her early books.” There’s just something about a hardback, isn’t there! And when you get the first printing—well, there’s something special about that too. These days you see reissues of classics with beautiful new covers (like Penguin’s Drop Cap series), and all sorts of special editions. I enjoy the Irish editions of my fave Irish authors, even when I know the book will be published in the States. Another good friend said: “Philip found this beautiful limited edition of The Corrections (you know how I feel about that book!) in Oxfam and bought it for me. I got it signed when Jonathan Franzen was in Dublin a few weeks ago. It’s one of my favourite things in the world.” I love this story!
Yes, yes, do avail yourself of used books, as in my friend’s story above. It may very well happen that the book you want to gift is out of print. Maybe you can get a paperback but would really rather give a hardback. Before the interwebs, you had to call a book-finder for this sort of thing; nowadays you can just search websites of the myriad used-book sellers here and abroad. It’s easy. And used books have character. I keep a supply of beautiful marbled art paper on hand in case a used book I ordered for gift-giving arrives with dirty or marked up end papers; I just cover it up with something pretty instead. (You wouldn’t do this to an antique or other collectible, of course, but I can’t afford those.) Don’t forget to check junk stores and antique malls for old books, too—you may find some treasures.
That’s it. All my advice and some ideas about giving books as gifts. The best gifts, always, are the surprises—the completely unexpecteds and totally perfects. My friend Amy, as busy as she is, knows I am a fan of this interesting guy, Austin Kleon. (I’ve written about him here and here.) When I found out he would be the keynote speaker at an event here in town, I was excited … until I realized I’d be out of town (on a long-planned vacation). Amy was at this event. And when I returned, she presented me with a special, completely-unexpected-and-totally-perfect gift:
So maybe this is my last bit of advice: remember that people who like to give books as gifts usually like to receive them too. :) Happy gifting!
* I still have it, and I still love it.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”