6 Word-Rich Ways to Celebrate the Season

Honor the light we create together with this bookish gift list.


It’s winter now for those of us in the northern hemisphere, and, for many, that means cold sucking at our skin and early sunsets hurrying us home. The winter holidays are a welcome antidote to the wild cold awaiting outside in the dark, so we gather friends and family around.

Human gatherings, of course, aren’t always happy or uplifting. In Albert Camus’ The Plague, a coastal town in North Africa succumbs to a brutal sickness, and the quarantine that results elicits extreme selfishness. Fearful of death, many of the townspeople retreat to their most base instincts. Panicked people set fire to their own neighborhoods, scammers steal, and friends lie to one another when they suspect infection.

But the plague also prompts some surprising generosity. At the end of the book, one of the doctors resolves to write an account of what the town went through, and “to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Those admirable things, the doctor observers, came from those “who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”

The novel is a metaphor of human life and mortality, and the healers who bring light aren’t limited to doctors. They stand in for any people who are kind and loving in times of darkness.

That, to me, is what the winter holidays are about: acknowledging that brightness in one another. Since people often exchange gifts during this time, I thought I’d make some suggestions about how to use books and words to thank your loved ones for their light within.

Buying books is the classic choice, of course. If you’re stumped, indie-bookstore staff recommendations are an excellent resource, as is NPR’s Book Concierge, and, of course, the Independent’s own Favorite 50. Even people who don’t love to read can be seduced by the right book — try a plot-driven young-adult novel for someone in their 30s, or an accessible book of poetry for someone who just needs a few minutes of peace.

But there are lots of other ways to spread bookish joy this holiday season. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Make a donation in honor of someone to a literary charity. Inner City-Inner Child (previously featured in Literally Kind) brings books and storytelling movement to DC children. DC Books to Prisons does just what its name suggests, with an all-volunteer staff. The Literacy Council of Montgomery County teaches reading and English-language skills to adult learners. And, as always, there’s our friendly host here, the nonprofit Washington Independent Review of Books, which works hard to spread a passion for books 24/7.

  2. Surprise a reader with a literary magazine subscription. Literary magazines are spotlights for emerging and established talent, and they often have the benefit of scooping poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction into one unique bucket. Readers who want to explore new literary worlds will find much to delight them, and subscriptions are often surprisingly affordable. Here are a few of my favorites: AGNI, New England Review, Mid-Atlantic Review, Pleiades, and Ploughshares.

  3. Give a gift to a favorite writer by sending some snail-mail praise. Send a letter or postcard to a writer you admire to tell her or him how their work has moved you. I guarantee you’ll bring light into that writer’s life, no matter how famous the person is. You can send the mail care of the publisher or the writer’s agent.

  4. Hand-write a holiday card. Take the time to write out a message of love this holiday season, and tell someone you care for why they’re so important to you.

  5. Let a reader read. If you know a busy reader, gift some reading time. Tell a young parent you’ll watch the kids for six hours, or tell a busy worker you’ll do the chores for a night. Send them away to their favorite local library or coffee shop, and watch them come back refreshed.

  6. Help a writer write. Writers love time just as much as readers, so the same applies here as above. Writers often need writing tools, like journals (I adore these ethically made, gorgeous journals from Ecojot) and pens (quality ones with refills are a good choice for the environment).

Whatever holiday you celebrate this season, even if it’s no formal holiday at all, I hope you find a moment to revel in the ways books make us better.

Carrie Callaghan lives in Maryland with her family. Her debut novel, A Light of Her Own, came out from Amberjack in November. Carrie quoted from Stuart Gilbert’s translation of The Plague. Because nothing says “Happy holidays” like a virulent epidemic.

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