The Best Book Gifts, And When Not To Give a Bookby Beth Carswell
A book makes a fantastic gift. True or false?
It’s true because books are personal - they show you care enough to pick something specific. They are a way of sharing something that moved you, or made you laugh. They communicate This really made me think of you.
It’s false, because depending on mitigating factors and circumstances, a book can absolutely tank, and prove to be a real stinker of a present, met with “You shouldn’t have. No….really.”
Of course, there are fairly surefire ways to give a book as a gift successfully. Almost anyone would find use and appreciation for a blank journal. If you want to wow them, a signed copy of a book you already know they love makes for a special surprise, and one that will possibly appreciate in monetary value, not just sentimental.
Having enjoyed and endured my fair share of successes and failures in the books-as-gifts department, I feel equipped to comment on common book-gifting errors, and hopefully prevent some lovely soul with the best intentions from having their gift fall flat.
Onward, brave booklovers.
For 16 great bookish gift suggestions, watch An Avid Reader's Guide to Books as Gifts. › Play Video
Top 10 Times Not to Give a Book
10. You don’t know them well enough. Period.
When I went through a painful period of loss, a well-meaning acquaintance gave me a book that had helped her through a hard time. It was Chicken Soup for the Soul. Anyone who knows me knows this just made me cry harder.
Rule of thumb: if you don’t really know someone, you can’t know their taste, so even a book you adored may be inappropriate. Much of this list boils down to “You don’t know them well enough”, actually, but there are some specific scenarios to watch for.
9. You don’t know them well enough romantically.
A friend had been dating a fellow for two months when his birthday arose. Birthdays early into relationships are tricky – the balance of personal and thoughtful versus too intimate or expensive is a delicate one. She chose to give him a copy – HER copy, in fact – of her favorite love story, Harold and Maude by Colin Higgins. It’s a romance between a morbid young man obsessed with dying (he attends strangers’ funerals and fakes his own death) and a vibrant, exuberant 79-year old woman living to the fullest. My friend found it beautiful, meaningful and romantic.
Her paramour, when asked how he’d enjoyed the book, shrugged uncomfortably. He had found it “kind of creepy and gross” and not finished it.
My friend loved that book so well that she was taken aback by his response, and given pause. I’m not saying it was Harold and Maude’s fault that they fizzled out shortly afterward, but you never know. Perhaps a book given romantically can actually be a good litmus test, when used judiciously.
8. You don’t know them well enough politically.
Better to err on the side of caution, mixing politics and pleasure. Politics is often something not discussed much among casual friends, and it can be difficult to gauge a person’s beliefs. Don’t assume. Otherwise, you may find them staring at you in horror when they unwrap Stephen Colbert’s I am America! And So Can You, or conversely, The Christmas Sweater by Glenn Beck.
7. They’re a huge book nerd, and have read everything. Twice.
Some people consume books like the rest of us consume oxygen. They manage to read while sleeping, driving, giving birth, ice skating, cooking. Voracious does not begin to describe it. These are the people to whom it is VERY DANGEROUS to give books. Always keep the receipt, and try not to take it personally when four out of five books given result in an apologetic face and an “I’ve read this, I’m sorry… it was really good, though!”
Better to just give them a gift certificate.
6. While you wish they did, they just don’t like books.
Remember when you were a teenager, and wore whatever your era’s version of terrible fashion was (mine: ripped jeans, oversized flannel shirts, rainbow hair, combat boots), and your parents would give you clothes, smiling pleadingly, hoping you might actually consider wearing a nice blazer and decent skirt? Yeah. That doesn’t work. Similarly, if someone limits their reading to Cosmopolitan or WWE Smackdown, giving them books to try to make a reader of them won’t go over well. They’ll be unimpressed at best, insulted at worst, and the book will end up in the closet – next to the blazer and skirt.
5. While you wish they did, they just don’t like the books you like.
How can they read submarine action, bosom-heaving bodice rippers and stories of moody vampires, when there are better books? So we decide, out of the kindness of our hearts, to intervene and correct their taste. But it’s probably less a matter of exposure than one of opinion. We all think our own taste is best (it’s our taste, after all), but people like what they like, and more power to ‘em. I don’t care if you’re reading for entertainment, education or escapism – just keep reading! It’s a better bet to give them something they’ll actually like, rather than trying to convert them.
4. They’re a gadget person.
Even if you know their tastes, and they’ve been a reader all their life, it’s no guarantee. How into gadgetry and devices are they? E-readers are now common enough that some people get all their books in file form, and might not know how to handle a real book anymore. But if you’re lucky, they might pronounce it ‘vintage’ or ‘retro’, and read it for irony’s sake. Perhaps while listening to music on vinyl.
3. They’ve become a minimalist.
Some people go through phases where they feel like “all my stuff owns ME!” and try to get rid of stuff. At this point in their lives, they’re probably using library cards (or again, electronic reading devices) to keep possessions to a minimum. Still, I suppose there’s no reason not to give them a book – once they read it, they might give it back!
2. They’re in college.
While your student may love reading more than food, sleep and water combined, giving a book as a gift to someone with a full course load can be a cruelty. You’re reminding them they won’t have time to read anything but textbooks, notes and dissertations for long, dark months and even years. Better to just give them a fist full of cash or some food more nutritious than noodles. Although perhaps it’s kind to remind them the world can be a beautiful place where reading is a choice. The book could sit on their shelf like a beacon of hope, boosting their spirits to make that final push to the end.
1. You haven’t researched the book properly.
You know that Great-Aunt Geraldine loves gardening and home décor, so you hastily buy her Flowers in the Attic. Or your nephew takes an interest in the Beat Generation, so you thoughtfully pick him up The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Ooh…so close. Gifts can sometimes be needed quickly, and books are such highly personal items that ensuring you know the book properly is important. Otherwise, Great-Aunt Geraldine might never stop screaming.
...And if you’ve read the above list, and feel safe that none of the scenarios apply, by all means proceed. The list is largely tongue-in-cheek anyway, and books often make the best gifts of all, if chosen with love and wisdom. And for every book I’ve gifted that tanked like a lead balloon, I’ve given at least 10 that have been met with pleasure, delight, and genuine excitement. Not a bad way to stay on someone’s Christmas card list. I’ve included a selection of books that I’ve given as gifts that were a big hit with the recipient – maybe you’ll get an idea that works for the booklover in your life, too. Happy shopping!
The Best Books as Gifts
by Elizabeth Strout
Don’t be intimidated by its Pulitzer Prize-winning status. This book is simple, and ranges from funny and lighthearted to aching and serious. A more astute, touching character study may not exist in fiction. Perfect for any lover of short stories.
The Complete Peanuts, 1950 to 1952
by Charles M. Schulz
For Snoopy-lovers and book collectors, this book could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship – covering the first 2+ years of Charles Schulz’ iconic strip, this is as inclusive as a format as you’ll find for Peanuts comics, and the following years are available in lush, gorgeous box sets. A treat.
Sea of Poppies
by Amitov Ghosh
A great choice for a fan of rich and complex fiction. At the heart of this vibrant saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Her destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean shortly before the outbreak of the Opium Wars in China. A riveting, intelligent, challenging read.
Swell: A Girls Guide to the Good Life
by Cynthia Rowley and Ilene Rosenzweig
For a dinner party host or newly-moved-out young person, this book is full of time and money-saving tricks to throwing a fantastic soiree on a budget, as well as modern guides to etiquette and getting by with grace in the day-to-day world. Anyone who liked Sex and the City will love this book.
Voices from the Storm
edited by Lola Vollen and Chris Ying
After Hurricane Katrina savaged New Orleans in 2005, many residents were stranded, in danger, and left trying to make their way out of the city or search for survivors and supplies. These are some of their stories. A fascinating read for anyone.
The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince)
by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Perfect for anyone with an innocent spirit, a healthy inner child, and a belief in magic, The Little Prince is the most often translated book from French. In the spirit of Voltaire's Candide and Coelho’s The Alchemist, the Little Prince is beautiful in its simplicity.
How to Cook Everything
by Mark Bittman
If you know any newlyweds, someone who’s just moved out on their own, or someone wanting to venture deeper into culinary adventures, this is an essential and invaluable resource. And the 10th-anniversary edition has even more goodness!
by Laura Hillenbrand
I generally prefer fiction, dislike war stories, and don't care about sports. That said, Unbroken, the true story of athlete Louie Zamperini being shot down over the Pacific and imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp in WWII was among my favorite books of 2010. Close to perfect.
Animal, Vegetable Miracle
by Barbara Kingsolver
Best known for her fiction, this is Barbara Kingsolver’s non-fiction account of her family’s attempts to stick to local, home-grown food for a year. A funny, evocative read, with great idea – it will appeal to any foodie, green-conscious reader.
Conversations with Myself
by Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela is one of the most inspiring and iconic figures of our age. Lovers of peace and politics, those thirsting for inspiration, comfort and serenity will find hope in Mandela’s words.
The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
Highbrow readers may initially turn their noses up at The Hunger Games – but a more engaging and un-put-downable story I’ve yet to find. Think Richard Bachman’s The Running Man meets Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Thirteen districts, two teenagers chosen from each, to fight to the televised death.
Letter to My Daughter
by Maya Angelou
Best suited to readers new to Maya Angelou’s work, this book is a gorgeous, poetic and profound wander through life, told in short anecdotal form. Funny and wise, this book is full of the learning of a lifetime. A great gift for anyone in your life, especially a mother or daughter.
I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence
by Amy Sedaris
You likely know David Sedaris. But his sister Amy is equally hilarious, and in her own unique way. This book makes a perfect host gift for anyone with even a moderate sense of humor. It is full of valuable, real tips, recipes and tricks on hospitality, but more importantly is hilarious.
Aqua Erotica: 18 Stories for a Steamy Bath
edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj
Fun as a gift for the open-minded erotica fan in your life, this collection of water-themed sexy stories has a unique twist – the book is waterproof. Perfect for the bath or hot tub, shower or swimming pool. Splash!
by Dave Eggers
Abdulrahman Zeitoun was unjustly imprisoned without explanation during the weeks following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Dave Eggers has taken the story of his frightening and unlawful experience and turned it into one of the most masterfully crafted non-fiction books of 2009. A book not to be missed.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
This is an ideal gift for the child or young teenager in your life. An American classic about a little girl named Francie Nolan growing up in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. It’s among the most touching novels going, and if you can be the first to give it to them, they’ll love it.
by L.R. Wright
This book did not net nearly the critical acclaim deserved. Understated, quiet and subtle, the story is set on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. An 80-year-old man named George Wilcox is suspected of murder, and trying to stay one step ahead RCMP officer Karl Alberg. I couldn’t put this one down.
The Art of Racing in the Rain
by Garth Stein
Life, love, struggles and changes, through the eyes of Enzo, a beloved family dog. Perfect for animal lovers and fans of fictions, this sweet, simple and understated book is moving but not sappy.
Interpreter of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri
A short story collection is an excellent choice for a gift, because if one story doesn’t grab the recipient, the next might. Interpreter of Maladies is Jhumpa Lahiri’s exquisite first book, with nine stories, most set in India or involving Indian culture.
The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
A little girl named Liesel in Germany is suddenly swallowed by WWII. Her father plays the accordion, her mother yells, and she loves them both dearly. Narrated by Death with a voice of sincerity, humor and sorrow, this is Liesel’s story. A beautifully moving book for anyone from 14 or older.
by Ann Patchett
Fans of excellent contemporary fiction, of opera or music in general won’t be able to resist this charming, vivid and beautiful story of terrorists taking over a luxurious birthday party in South America.
The Princess Bride
by William Goldman
I find the idea that anyone could not love this book to be entirely inconceivable. It’s even better than the movie, with betrayal, sword-fighting, pirates, a princess, king bats, wrestling, and of course, true love. A really fun read for anyone.
by Art Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel masterpiece Maus was published in 1986. It is an illustrated memoir of the author’s father’s life in Nazi Germany as a Polish Jew. To celebrate 25 years since Maus’ publication, this 2011 edition features exploration of the original work and comes with a bonus DVD.
Boy and Going Solo
by Roald Dahl
Best known for his children’s works, this story of Roald Dahl's own life is enjoyable for mature children and adults alike. From boarding school to the pilot’s seat of a fighter’s plane, Dahl’s life was fascinating. Now available in a single volume.
by Banana Yoshimoto
This novel of a young Japanese woman finding new definitions for family, and new appreciation for food and kitchens in the aftermath of personal tragedy is life-affirming without being heartwarming or trite, and quirky without being cloying. A happy read.