If you're like me, despite the appearance of holiday decorations back in October—EARLY October—right about now you’re thinking of holiday gift giving. There are various sales and commercials exhorting the gifting potential of power tools, toys, games and, of course, cars. The cars-as-gifts commercials particularly make my eyes roll. I don’t think there are a lot of people who are going to surprise their loved ones with a Lexus in this economy.
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In previous holiday seasons, I've seen advertisements suggesting that folks buy books as gifts, and on the surface, that sounds like an idea I'd get behind 100 percent. I love giving gifts, I love books, I read and recommend a TON of them, so it would be a natural progression that I would be the person who gives books as gifts, right?
Alas, not so much. Books are an impossible gift. The flaw with any advertising campaign suggesting books as gifts is that "books" is too generic a term, allowing the shopper to wander into a potential minefield. Books are very intimate things, and suggesting a book for someone to read, let alone buying it and giving it to them, is a powerful act. As Kevin Smokler, founder of the now-defunct BookTour.com, said in a panel at SXSW, the act of suggesting a book to someone isn't asking someone out for coffee: "It's dinner and a movie and dessert and possibly making out afterward." You're asking that someone spend a lot of time and, more importantly, imagination on the book you suggest—and that requires pretty intricate knowledge of what that person likes and what they like to read.
Buying a book as a gift can be really, really difficult. This is why I rarely do it.
There are a couple of ways to gift a book. You could buy a book with a wide audience, one that you've seen dozens of people reading, or seen advertised everywhere from the subway to the sides of buses to the back of a magazine. The risk is that they've read it, or that the book itself won't interest the recipient because that broad appeal renders it somewhat meaningless to the individual for whom you've chosen the book.
You could make the book part of a larger gift. For example, you could gather up two books, some tea, a teapot and a blanket for a gift basket. But then you get back to which two books to pick. Mysteries? Thrillers? Cookbooks? Which ones? Romances? I have several suggestions, but even then I like to know a bit about the recipient's taste before I select something.
Then there's the problem of knowing what books someone likes, but not knowing which ones she's read. My mother-in-law likes Jodi Picoult, Nora Roberts and Debbie Macomber. Fortunately for her, for me and for her local library, where she borrows her books on tape, all those authors have considerable backlists. Do I know which ones she's read and which one's she hasn't? No idea. So I risk buying one she's read. Again, I'm not sure. It's always handy if the person has an online wish list of books and ideas for gifts, but not everyone has one. My mother-in-law definitely doesn't.
(Clearly, you can see that I have a good dose of that mania to Give a Good Gift, right? I own that all the way. My gifting neuroses—they are my own and I cherish them.)
Fortunately, there are easy gift options for the book-reading recipients in your life. There are always gift cards and certificates to local bookstores, or sources for audio or digital books. And there are resources like Kirkus or the wonderfully addictive catalog Bas Bleu that offer reviews and commentary about odd and different books. Any resource like that might allow you to make an informed decision about buying a book as a gift, no matter how daunting the person may be to buy for.
I've found many books for my dad, who loves books about Civil War generals and random nonfiction about odd things, like salt or paperclips. I discovered Mary Roach's books in a catalog like Bas Bleu, and they have been excellent gifts for several holidays now, beginning with Stiff. He thought they were great, and he's notoriously difficult to shop for. But I still haven't duplicated the success of that discovery and often buy him gift cards for bookstores instead.
That has become my go-to solution for reader-type gifts. Those of us who love reading love to spread the reading around and suggest books, even if buying a book for someone else fills you, like it does me, with trepidation. So this year, to combat my fear of buying the wrong book for someone, I'm giving a few people gift cards and a suggestion list of books I think they might like. That's the closest I can come to buying a book as a gift.
Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.