Nothing quite captures the thoughtfulness of gifting quite like a good book chosen to delight (or despair) the recipient.
I have alway found giving books the superior form of gift-giving. Nothing quite captures the thoughtfulness of gifting quite like a good book chosen to embrace (or alter) the receiver’s particular psychology. I’ve always gifted books to the people I loved (and sometimes, I have received books from the people who loved me).
I once read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep on a plane to Italy, losing myself in time-and-space-and-mind in the few hours before the plane landed. Then years later, bought a beautiful paperback copy from Waterstones, gift-wrapped it myself, and sent it to an ex-lover for their birthday. Their response was so earnest, so “nobody has ever given me something so thoughtful” that I bristled at the emotional vulnerability and hurried the end of us.
I once listened to an audiobook of The Reading Cure, then later bought a new hardback copy for a friend with a history of eating disorders. I wrapped it in pretty cloth fabric (because at this point I was more eco-conscious and despised the waste of gift wrap) and tied it with a black ribbon. Later, when I wound up at their flat, my friend proudly showed me my/their book shelved amongst the classics.
I once bought Piranesi for a book club and – once things really got moving past the mid-way point – stayed up the entire night to finish it. Then read it again before the week was gone. I gifted it to a friend over a pub catch-up, after not having seen each other in a number of months as most adults, and told them – take this and read it. Later they would text me with an intense what-the-fuckness about the absolute gall I had, to have her read something so heart-wrenching. So now we were both entranced in the same fantastical universe.
I was once looking for a Christmas gift for a friend who expressed the potentiality of identifying as aromantic, so I went to the Gay’s the Word bookshop and asked the librarian for book recommendations. Sadly there was only one book suited for the situation – so I bought that. (Plus a few other books for myself from the second-hand section). The gift was shipped abroad and opened over Skype – with an “oh” and a blank stare. Maybe there had been a miscommunication – or maybe the book had arrived too early/too late for an epiphany.
I once bought a book on candy-making from a charity shop and re-gifted it for a Secret Santa, to a friend I knew was competent enough to actually make those candies. And for another Secret Santa, I gifted a writer friend with a new copy of The Elements of Style. Sometimes books can be both for pleasure and business.
I once bought a book of unfilmed Star Trek scripts called Lost Voyages of Trek and the Next Generation from a Star Trek Convention, and it languished on my bookshelves for a number of years. Later, during a moment of pandemic-induced madness where I swore to read all the physical books I owned, I finally read it and marked my favourite scripts with sticky notes. I then sent it to another Trekkie friend, because the joy of books must be shared whenever possible (but most importantly during a pandemic).
I was once gifted The Edible Atlas, a recipe book alongside a kit of ingredients, and I’ve learned to make the perfect shrimp paella with authentic pimentón paprika, and I’ve failed at making jollof rice, and I’ve discovered the wonderful Lao Gan Ma sauces range and my favourite East Asian recipe website, The Woks of Life.
And so on and so forth. I could probably blame my parents for this. I have now reached the age where I can see my parents as the flawed human beings they are, but the one thing I cannot bring myself to fault them for is their willingness to (always, always) buy me books.
(We had a local library, but I was too scared to use it – the librarians frightened me something fierce. And years later, the descriptions of the librarians in Welcome to Night Vale would vindicate me.)
My mother bought me the second and third books from the Harry Potter series, which led to a preteen-teen-young adult long obsession. She bought me the first books of Deltora Quest and The Girl of the Sixth Moon, which led me further down the kid fantasy genre. She bought me the first four books of A Series of Unfortunate Events, which made me a super annoying child, talking about codes and herpetologists.
(She also bought me The Colour of Magic, which I hated – but then again, I was only ten – so I’ve forgiven both her and myself for the oversight).
My parents had the mindset that as long as I was reading, it was all good, because I wasn’t getting in trouble. So I took my allowance money to bookshops and bought things they would have probably objected to, if they had known any better (like The Picture of Dorian Gray and Fight Club and The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories).
A friend from middle school gifted me God Is My Broker, saying that he thought I might find this satirical book about finance and religion interesting (and my burgeoning atheism during middle school was not very). And indeed, this was an excellent book to read when I was twelve.
Another friend gifted me a beautiful 1959 copy of 4.50 from Paddington, all faded covers and no ISBN and peeling paper. I read it during a warm pandemic summer on a picnic blanket in the park, taking care to not turn the pages too fast.
But the funniest book-gifting tale I have to share, is during a French conversation class where we had to pair up and discuss gift-giving. In clunky French (and with a bad accent), I enthused about books as the perfect (gender-neutral) gift. And with just as much clunkiness, my (male) conversation partner insisted that girls don’t want books, they want jewellery. It was a very silly response, and I told him so – and so irate he got, the teacher had to separate us.
But this irateness would continue to hound me, when I worked with books in retail, from some very silly parents with antiquated, gendered beliefs of what girls should/would/could read. The state of the book marketing industry (with their predilection of splashing pink on anything that might resemble a girlish endeavour) does not help matters.
And sometimes, a grandparent would ask, “I need to buy a book for a girl”, and I would grit my teeth and ask, “And what sort of things does she like?” and they would shrug their shoulders, as if ‘girl’ is the only attribute worth mentioning, as if the state of girlhood takes precedence over the state of being alive, of being a human being with emotions and moods and feelings that don’t depend on gender.
But that’s my gender rant out of the way.
The point is, gift books based on interests, whether pre-existing, established, or potential. Gift books based on granting your friend joy or pain, exaltation or despair (there’s a book for every one of those). Gift books you’re heard of or read or dreamed of, because the point of books is to share them within yourself, and then with others.
And if you’re out of ideas, just use the old – “I read this and thought you should too”. That never fails.
- Philip K. Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
- Laura Freeman – The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite
- Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
- William Strunk & E.B.White – The Elements of Style
- Mark A. Altman & Edward Gross – Lost Voyages of Trek and the Next Generation
- Mina Holland – The Edible Atlas: Around the World in Thirty-Nine Cuisines
- JKR – Harry Potter (series)
- Emily Rodda – Deltora Quest (series)
- Moony Witcher – The Girl of the Sixth Moon (series)
- Lemony Snicket – A Series of Unfortunate Events (series)
- Terry Pratchett – The Colour of Magic (from the Discworld series)
- Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
- Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club
- H. P. Lovecraft – The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories
- Christopher Buckley & John Tierney – God Is My Broker
- Agatha Christie – 4.50 from Paddington
Featured image is a collage of the book covers for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Piranesi, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories and The Reptile Room (book #2 from A Series of Unfortunate Events).