The Gifts that Keep on Giving

Why books are perfect for every occasion


It’s getting to be gift-giving season, but giving gifts has gotten to be more complicated, and especially so with books. In the age of Amazon and its ubiquitous Wish List, it is hard to surprise someone with a book you think they might like. Certainly in my extended family, I’ve learned that I give a niece or a nephew, or a sibling, something not on their Wish List at my peril.

Books are particular victims here. Every book is available to everyone anywhere. If someone is interested in a book, they already have it or can get it with the click of the mouse. If they don’t know about it, they’re less likely to be open to it just because you give it to them. So they are most likely to exchange it for another book or even something else.

Also, you don’t always know if the person prefers an audiobook or an e-book to a print copy. So unless you’re buying a special secondhand book for a collector or a cookbook or other type of coffee-table book, your everyday print book may not be particularly welcome.

It was not so long ago that I was able to surprise my niece by sending her a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone very soon after it came out. She had never heard of Harry Potter in distant Wichita (she was only 8 or 9 at the time), but she soon became fanatically devoted to the series, reading each volume several times and decorating her room in Hogwarts style. (She is now working as a civil engineer in Tulsa, but No. 1 on her Wish List this year is the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Illustrated Edition that came out in October.)

In a world where you can drop $50 getting a beer and a gourmet hamburger for two people, books have gotten to be relatively cheap. Friends will casually “loan” books to each other on the understanding that it’s not important or necessary to return it.

By the same token, there’s no need to wait for Christmas to give someone a book. When a friend was going to France, I gave him a copy of Philip Short’s A Taste for Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of François Mitterrand, a 640-page biography of the former French president that could keep him busy on both flights across the Atlantic. He reciprocated by bringing me back the French edition of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission well before the English edition was available.

When Anthony Marra’s new book, The Tsar of Love and Techno, came out, I bought a second copy to give to the friend who introduced me to Marra’s wonderful first book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Another friend was going for a vacation in Key West, so I gave him a copy of Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost.

There was no point in any of these cases in waiting until a holiday to give such a simple gift. In fact, books may seem too simple or unimaginative a gift for a holiday. And yet they can still be an effective, affordable way to give someone an unexpected pleasure and open up whole worlds that are anything but simple.

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