Giving and Receiving Books

John Williams wrote a short article for the NYT called, “The Perilous Art of Giving Books.”

“Long ago, The Onion ran the mock-headline: “Book Given As Gift Actually Read.” More recently, the Tumblr site The Books They Gave Me has collected autobiographical reminiscences that illustrate the sometimes perilous task of finding the right book for the right reader. But what about book-giving as a theme in literature itself? …”

[The complete article is at NYT. ]

Williams presents a specific, limiting theme but his article was enough to engender many related thoughts about giving and receiving books, especially for Christmas.


All my friends and relatives and quasi-relatives and pseudo-friends know that I read a lot, support a website dedicated to reading, and have humongous bookcases throughout the house. So what do these potential gift-givers get me for Christmas? Naturally, a book or two, often one the giver praises so highly I suspected it is a re-gift. What do you say when you tear off the tissue paper and find a copy of the latest Eric Lustbader adventure or worse, some overwritten horror-fest by Steven King? “Wow!” is my usual response which to me means, “Wow! This one goes straight to the book exchange,” but the giver thinks I am expressing my surprise and delight. The trick is to jump on the next wrapped present and avoid any more discussion of the books other than “Wow!”

A few close friends have asked for a list in advance and I must admit that I got some great books that way:  A Dance to the Music of Time, Á la recherché de temps perdu, The Glastonbury Cycle, etc. But as Barnes and Noble opened more and more stores in the area, all my gifts became on gift certificates. Now this was partly good since it gave me the credit to buy the books I wanted, but I didn’t get the same discount as I would have if I had used my own Barnes and Noble credit card. Furthermore, what eventually happened was we were all exchanging gift cards and it just seemed silly: here’s a $50 Macy’s for you and Wow! a $50 B&N from you. So nowadays a friend might send me a Starbucks card but for the most part we have gotten off the gift wagon and I just buy myself a fancy new cane each year to celebrate.

When the Kid was growing up I vowed to always give her a few books for Christmas, books that I felt were important for her to read. I think the last book I gave her was the new translation of War and Peace. Unfortunately when she got back to her college apartment, someone broke into her car and stole all her Christmas presents including War and Peace. We both thought this was ironic that a smash and grab would find the strength to lug away that big fat book (we speculated for months about whether the burglar actually read it). The bookstores were one of the early places I let my little girl go up and pay for her own books (with my money, of course). I remember one time in a Waldenbooks she stood at the high counter for some time before the cashier noticed this little hand with some dollar bills in it thrust as high as the Kid could manage.

I read online quite often about the wonderful books someone got for Christmas or from a library sale and it seems like a good thing, that is until you really evaluate the titles. Of course that’s my opinion of the books and others have their own opinions. But isn’t that the point? Selecting books is a very personal thing and it’s just too perilous to give them as gifts. The gift card is better but exchanging gift cards is stupid. I conclude that it’s better to not give books and to let the person purchase or otherwise procure them personally.

5 responses

  1. I definitely give books to my young children and would like to continue that as they get older. The only people who give me books know and share my literary tastes so I have rarely received a bad book. The only book I ever got that I didn’t like was, ironically, from my ex-husband. I have no idea why he chose it except he went to the bookstore and they told him it was extremely popular with women. It was a Nicholas Sparks book. Meh.
    I only gift books to people I think I have a VERY good understanding of their literary tastes and try and come as close as possible to getting them something I think they’ll like. Most of the time, I have read it before and constantly thought of them in particular while reading it.

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  2. It is ironic that both you and I have large collections of books including our own and our daughter’s. Of course my daughter is now 32 and has a house of her own, but it wasn’t too long ago that she was ready to give up her apartment in Atlanta when she went to Los Angeles for a post-doc assignment so she dropped off a lot of books and belongings at my house and most of them are still here.

    Maybe I should go to Lowes for boxes and make a surprise visit to Tallahassee. I can get a lot of books in the van.

    I mentioned that I used to get my daughter books for Christmas but now she gives them to me. It seems the publishers keep sending her books for review and inclusion in her research so she passes many of them on to me.

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  3. I love both giving and receiving books, and one would think, seeing my home and how absolutely crammed it is with books (both mine and my 3-year old daughter’s), that books are a pretty safe gift. But I noticed this Christmas that apparently people think I need… get this… TVs! The past two Christmases I’ve received televisions (from the same people), and I’ve gotten two others from two other people for birthdays and holidays past! I now have one TV in a box, two in closets, and two plugged in, only one with cable.

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  4. I have read a couple of Gore Vidal’s books and have most of them on the bookshelf waiting for me. I especially like his essays.

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  5. Two Christmas ago my older brother gave me as a present The unbeareable lightness of the being and Perfume, by Suskind. Both from a list I already wrote for him.

    This time I have purchased a so called autographed edition of Julian, by Gore Vidal. Have you read it?

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