This holiday tradition is more fraught than you think.
With the holidays looming menacingly on the horizon, our thoughts turn anxiously to one of the more dangerous activities of the season: selecting gifts for those near and (at least somewhat) dear.
In my family, this has often meant giving a book. The idea is so well-intentioned and idealistic.
In theory, gift books flatter recipients for their lively curiosity and intelligence, making clear that they are valued for their minds. They also reflect well on the giver, demonstrating your own curiosity and intelligence. At its best, the gift book is a warm sharing of a positive experience.
Yet the gift book can be an awful dud. Trust me on this. I have committed a wide range of errors in selecting books as gifts. To help others avoid some of those depressing blunders, herewith are eight simple rules, only some of which contradict each other.
- It’s Not about You: One of the least welcome rules in any human activity — we so prefer that everything be about ourselves — this is essential in selecting a gift book. That you loved the book is swell. Feel free to gush about it in conversation. But do not inflict a tender love story on a 15-year-old male who’s into shooter video games. Vampire stories for Grandma? Only if you know she loves them. Think about the recipient.
- Thinner Is Better: No, this is not a body-image thing. Few gifts are as daunting to receive as that door-stopper of a book. There are exceptions. A massive Stephen King tome for a dedicated King fan may be fine if you know said fan hasn’t yet read it. But if there is any question about the recipient’s love for the subject or author of a book, skew your purchases toward shorter titles. Hey, you do that when you buy books for yourself, right?
- If You Haven’t Read the Book, It’s a Crapshoot: Book reviews, even in brilliant publications like the Independent, only take you so far. The reviewer may be such a good writer that she makes that short-story collection about Burmese sock-menders sound more captivating than any recipient will. Word-of-mouth recommendations carry similar risks. Unless you read 24/7, you will end up giving books that you haven’t read. Beware.
- Don’t Inscribe the Book Yourself: An inscription by the author on the title page can be a nice touch. After all, that’s the person who wrote it. Your own John Hancock? Not so much. Two big risks here. First that you’ll write something at least slightly squirm-inducing. Second that you will stumble across the inscribed book at your favorite secondhand bookstore — a sour moment.
- It’s 2014, Not 2010: This arises principally with children still living in the house with you. You see a graphic novel about a family of hyper-intelligent guinea hens and think, “Jerome loves guinea hens!” You greedily snatch it up. You present the gift. Jerome’s face falls. He is so over guinea hens. Stay current.
- Have a Default Book: It helps to have a book that, in your experience, most people enjoy. For a number of years, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was my default book. A quick read. Exciting. A bit of ersatz philosophizing to pretend to think about. So what if my wife didn’t like it? The not-so-good movie version has taken the air out of this one, so I need a new go-to novel. (Orson Scott Card alert: NONE of his other books is anywhere near as good. I have read at least a dozen of them. They’re not terrible, but the magic struck only once.)
- Even Though You Know the Author, It Still May Be the Wrong Gift: The other seven rules still apply. You absolutely should buy your friend’s book for yourself and for anyone you know will enjoy it. Stop there.
- Gift Cards Work, Mostly: Sure, it feels like a cop-out, a glaring admission that (i) I don’t know you well enough to pick out a book for you, or (ii) I don’t have the time. Then again, the Serious Reader of a Certain Age is notoriously difficult to purchase for. Serious Readers buy their own damn books, lots of them. Sadly, you must now navigate the political minefield associated with gift cards. Amazon cards shriek that you lack a cultural conscience and wish to see authors pauperized. Barnes & Noble gift cards demonstrate that you have forgotten how B&N savaged independent bookstores before Amazon savaged B&N. And gift cards from your local indie store express your preference for paying top dollar for service that could get better someday. Pick your poison.
David O. Stewart is president of the Washington Independent Review of Books. His character study of James Madison, Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America, will be released in February.