Story By Nara Schoenberg
December 1, 2012
They're meaningful, beautiful, portable, and, by the standards of modern gift giving, appealingly inexpensive. They also ship and wrap easily, and allow me to put my money where my heart is: art, ideas and the written word. So why did I hesitate for so long to give books as gifts? For the same reasons, I'm guessing, that a lot of book-lovers refrain. The pitfalls, from giving a book to someone who already has it, to giving a book a to someone who hates it unconditionally, are considerable.
In my world, if you give the wrong jewelry or sweater, you're a lovable klutz — or maybe, at worst, someone with hilariously bad taste. But give the wrong book to a fellow reader and you risk saying something borderline insulting: that you haven't been listening, that you don't understand, that you just don't care.
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I finally faced my fears for a number of reasons: The book industry is in serious trouble, my knitwear and jewelry gifts are blatantly uninspired, my mother gave me the novel "Olive Kitteridge" and two years ago I couldn't come up with a birthday present for a close friend.
I was struggling mightily to come up with the aforementioned birthday present when I remembered a clarifying conversation. I'd known for a decade that my friend loved horses, but I only really got it when she talked about a retreat she'd gone on with a horse whisperer who showed her how to read a horse's demeanor and get the animal to respond to your words and gestures.
My friend isn't one of those people who want to ride shiny show horses and win brightly colored ribbons, I realized. She's intrigued by the horse as an end to itself: its mind, its spirit, its power and grace.
Having remembered that, I went to Amazon.com, and in about 15 minutes I'd parsed the reviews, professional and amateur, and used the "Click to Look Inside" feature to find a photography book that I knew my friend would love ("Horses: In Living Color" by Barbara D. Livingston). Her over-the-top response was immensely gratifying, and I started branching out.
None of my gifts was a glaring failure, and some were brilliant successes. My hard-to-buy for husband is currently reading "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga" by Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith," and I gloat every time I see him hunched over that 900-page book. So I'm now willing to go out on a limb and say not only that books make great gifts, but, all things being equal, book-lovers probably should be giving books — at least some of the time, at least to people who really like to read.
If you're ready to give books, or ramp up your book-giving for the holiday season, my main advice is, get started. But I have learned a few things on my journey, and Chicagoland booksellers and librarians have tips as well. Among the highlights: Give the book behind a favorite movie, know where to check the reviews of books you haven't read (but suspect would be perfect), get free advice from a librarian or bookseller, know how to decode Amazon.com, and don't sweat the mistakes.
"If [a book] comes from the heart and it's what you like, somebody can exchange it or give it to somebody else," says Roberta Rubin, owner of the Book Stall in Winnetka. "It doesn't mean it's a 'mistake' mistake. We do take returns!"
Give a book you love
This is the most fool-proof type of book giving: You've read the book, you love the book, you love your friend; what could go wrong?
My only caution: Think twice if the book is "Gone Girl" and your friend hates thrillers or the book is "Cutting for Stone" and your friend is a raging hypochondriac.
As Bleue Benton, collection development manager at the Oak Park Public Library, puts it, "Buy it for them, not for you." That means you can feel free to give the friend with the sharp sense of humor and liberal politics Christopher Buckley's hysterical "Thank You For Smoking." But if your pal's political ideal is Paul Ryan, I suggest you look elsewhere.
None of this is to say that you must be a slave to your friend's preferences and preconceptions. I'm not a short story person, but I went on an Alice Munro reading rampage after a friend who had repeatedly recommended Munro finally gift-wrapped "The Love of a Good Woman" and placed it in my hands.
The key here was that my friend was right: I was a Munro fan waiting to happen. If I wasn't itching to go to forlorn off-the-map locations and dark places in the human psyche, if I weren't endlessly intrigued with the love, loss and the names of common weeds and wildflowers, the gift wouldn't have been such a sensation.
Give me a book someone else loves
I wouldn't give a good friend a novel I hadn't read any more than I'd set her up with a man (or woman) I hadn't met, but that's partly because of the subtext. I read a lot of fiction and I have for 40 years. If I can't find something for you in my mental backlist, we have a problem that goes way beyond gift-giving.
Non-fiction is a different story. I never seem to get around to those big, fat biographies of American presidents, generals and politicians, but there are people who really love them, and there are great scholars and writers who devote their lives to them. Who am I to argue? The key here is, obviously, to know the recipient's interests well: Is he interested in the American Revolution? The Civil War? Teddy Roosevelt and that's pretty much it?
If a book in the right subject area has a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize, I'm good to go. If not, I want know what the reviewers say. Benton likes the professional review sources: ALA Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews, the last of which offers abundant free online content. For one-stop shopping, I go to Amazon.com, which often includes reviews from prominent sources along with customer reviews.
When using Amazon, you'll want to check the average customer rating (from zero to five stars) and the "most helpful" positive and negative reviews, which address vital issues such as the all-important boredom factor.
Get free help
At Anderson's Bookshops in Naperville and Downer's Grove, co-owner Becky Anderson says her staff will want to know the gift recipient's gender, age, interests and maybe a book that he or she has recently read or enjoyed.
From there, the bookseller can recommend go-to books such as "Gone Girl" for mystery lovers, Jo Nesbo's "Phantom" for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" fans, as well as techie humor and fiction set on the Great Lakes. A book that inspired a movie the recipient loved is a great way to go, Anderson says; this season that might mean "Life of Pi," or "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."
Libraries are another great source of free book advice, says Andrew Medlar, a youth materials specialist at the Chicago Public Library. Medlar, who gives about 30 children's books a year to his nieces and nephew — he uses a spreadsheet to prevent duplicating gifts — says you can also check the library's new "Celebrate Bookamania Every Day" list of kid-lit recommendations available at chipublib.org.
Among his picks: "Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs" and "A Kiss Means I Love You," a picture book about non-verbal communication illustrated with photos of Chicagoland families.
If all else fails
My stepfather, a book lover, gives me an Amazon gift certificate every year, and I can't think of a more perfect gift. I get to choose the books and, believe me, I know what the recipient wants better than anyone.
If your recipient is local, or you're willing to go online and identify their local bookseller, a bookstore gift certificate is a great way to give a little joy — and help preserve a brick-and-mortar store for the readers of the future.
How's that for a gift that keeps on giving?
Nara Schoenberg is a lifestyles reporter for the Chicago Tribune.