On the desire to be better at gifting books

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books on display at The Paper Hound in Vancouver, BC

Surprise, surprise: I love books. I love buying books, browsing books, borrowing books, looking at books, learning about books and, of course, reading books. But, as much as I love gifting books, I’ve been doubting how good I am at it.

I’ve written about why books make the best gifts, and I truly enjoy going into bookstores, thinking about the recipient and choosing something I think they will like based on their interests/life/other books they’ve read and liked. But, as much as I like doing this, I don’t know if I’ve really done a good job of getting it right.

When I think about it some more, it’s not even just gifting books. It’s also giving book recommendations, or lending books to people when they ask for “whatever you think I’ll like.” I like it when people do that, but how many times have people come back and said they loved the book? (Well, it’s happened for sure. I don’t always get it wrong. But I guess I’m saying I wish it happened more.) Thankfully, booksellers and librarians are there to help.

Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on myself. After all, I don’t always love the books people give or recommend to me, but I do always, always appreciate it when I can see the thought that was put into that selection, when I can see how the person had my interests/life/books I’ve read and liked in mind.

I’ll continue giving books to people (sorry if you’re a person in my life who hasn’t liked what I’ve picked out for you in the past). I can’t help it; I love sharing the book love way too much to stop now.

Are you good at gifting books or offering personalized recommendations? What do you think about when deciding which book to gift or lend someone?

How to buy books as gifts

20161204_195145In general, I do not enjoy Christmas shopping. The stores are crowded, and everyone’s rushed and in a bad mood. But shopping for books is an exception. It’s one of my favourite parts of the holidays. If you haven’t discovered the joy of buying books for your loved ones, here are a few tips.

Consider their interests

Maybe you don’t know what this person likes to read. Maybe you’re not sure how much reading they do at all. There are lots of books that can link to other hobbies or interests they have. Do they like to cook or bake? Check out the newest cookbooks. Maybe they like history and would be interested in a biography of a historical figure. Or you might try a book about gardening or travel.

Connecting a book to a hobby doesn’t mean you have to stick to non-fiction, either. You can find a novel or a book of short stories that has this person’s hobby or interest as a central theme.

Check out their social media feeds

You can, of course, pay attention to the conversations you have with this person, or maybe even sneak a peek at their bookshelves. But when you don’t have the opportunity to do some sleuthing in real life, it’s time to turn to the internet.

The most obvious choice is to see if this person has a Goodreads account. This can show you what they have already read and give you an idea of the kinds of books they like. But you can look beyond Goodreads, too. They might discuss books on Twitter or Facebook. Or maybe they posts photos of books on Instagram.

Ask a bookseller for help

Sometimes, no matter how well you know a person, you could still use some assistance. That’s when you should turn to a professional. Booksellers know of a lot more books than the rest of us do. It’s their job. Tell them a bit about the person you are shopping for and see what they recommend.

Shop in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore

This will make the above point a bit easier, but there’s also something about picking up books in your hands and being able to examine them up close. You can also check out store displays for titles you hadn’t thought of.

Give your personal favourites

This only works if you read a book and you truly think the person you are buying for will like this book, too. But sometimes you don’t need to take a chance on a book you’ve only heard about. Maybe the perfect gift is something you’ve read yourself.

When in doubt, stick with the visual

I love words and perhaps you do, too. But if you’re not sure that your giftee has a similar affinity for reading, go with a coffee-table book or a book of photography. If nothing else, this object of beauty will be something they can display.

Have fun with it

Yes, there’s a chance you’ll give a book that the person won’t read or that you’ll get them a duplicate copy of something they already own. But it really is the thought that counts. Of course this means you actually have to make an effort and not just grab the first thing you see off the shelf. But as long as you’re shopping with someone specific in mind, that will come through. Trust me. And that’s the best gift you can give.

How did your bookshelves get so full?

I acquired many of my books in a similar fashion: I bought them from a bookstore, either on a whim or as a planned purchase. But whenever I look through my books, I realize that some are special to me not solely because of their content, but also because of the memory of how they landed on my bookshelves. Here are a few stories behind the how I came into some of my books.

The Id Kid by Linda Besner

The Id Kid — Linda Besner

I like going to readings, but most of the time I go to see writers I already admire. But every now and then, I go and see writers I’ve never heard of, and sometimes end up discovering someone I really like. This was the case with Linda Besner. I saw her read at Harbourfront Centre a couple of years ago, and enjoyed her poetry so much that I bought a copy of The Id Kid and got Besner to sign it after the reading.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

All the Pretty Horses — Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses was one of the books on the docket for an American literature course I took in university. As with most of the books I was required to read, I picked up this copy at the campus bookstore. It was the first Cormac McCarthy book I read, and I liked it quite a bit. But it’s difficult to know if the impression it made on me was the writing itself or if it was because I noticed similarities to my grandfather’s life, as he was a cowboy in the time period the book is set in. When I finished the book, I told my grandfather about it, which opened up a dialogue about some of his other life experiences. I’m not sure I would have heard those stories otherwise.

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

Lullabies for Little Criminals — Heather O’Neill

Earlier this year, I borrowed Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill from the library. I enjoyed it so much that I kind of wanted my own copy, but it didn’t seem practical to go to the bookstore to buy a book I’d just read. When I found a used copy at a book sale a few months later for $1.50, I took it as a sign that it was meant to be mine.

A Glossary of Literary Terms by M. H. Abrams

A Glossary of Literary Terms — M. H. Abrams

While in university, many of my professors recommended A Glossary of Literary Terms, but it was never a required text for any of my courses. The number of recommendations made me curious, and I decided I needed to get my hands on it. When I looked for the book online, I learned it was out of print. So I went to eBay—where I often looked for things I wanted to buy in the early 2000s—and I bought a used copy. I ended up citing it in a lot of my English essays, too. I guess those professors really do know what they’re talking about.

Jude the Obscure -- Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure — Thomas Hardy

I bought Jude the Obscure at my neighbourhood bookstore, which is not much of a story. The more interesting (and perhaps a little embarrassing) story is why I decided to read this book in the first place. Years ago, I saw an interview with Jude Law on a late-night talk show. Law mentioned he was named after the main character in Hardy’s book, remarking that it was odd for his parents to name their son after a character who has such miserable experiences. And that sounded like a book I wanted to read. So I guess sometimes watching television can lead to reading more books.

A Boy's Will and North of Boston -- Robert Frost

A Boy’s Will and North of Boston — Robert Frost

This book was given to me, but I’ve never met the gift-giver. The woman who gave me this book worked with my father when I was a teenager. I suppose my dad mentioned to her that I liked Robert Frost, and she gave him this book to pass on to me. I thought—and still think—that it was a very sweet thing to do.

Trainspotting -- Irvine Welsh

Trainspotting — Irvine Welsh

In high school, a friend gave me a copy of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting as a Christmas present. When I tried to read it, I had difficulty following because of the Scottish accent the book is written in. I ended up abandoning it, even though I absolutely loved the film. Years later, I realized that if I’d been able to tackle Chaucer, surely I could manage Welsh. I ended up liking the book even more than the film. I’m glad I gave this one a second chance.

Poems to Remember

Poems to Remember

I grew up in a house that had a lot of books in it. It wasn’t uncommon for my parents, my brother or me to look through the family-room bookshelves for something to read. But a few of those books didn’t make it back to those shelves and ended up leaving the house when I did. You could say they’re stolen, but I prefer to say they are on extended loan. Besides, the name scribbled on the inside cover of this copy of Poems to Remember belongs to my uncle. Whether he gave it to my parents or whether they stole it before I stole it, I doubt my parents remember (or my uncle, for that matter).

The Chairs Are Where the People Go -- Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti

The Chairs Are Where the People Go — Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti

Something that is really fun is when you win books. I haven’t won a lot of contests in my life, but the few times I have won mostly awarded me books. I won my copy of The Chairs Are Where the People Go from The Word on the Street book festival, when they ran a “guess the author” contest on Twitter a couple of years ago.

After looking over my shelves, I’ve realized my book collection needs more found books. If I take a trip to London, maybe I’ll find a book on the tube. It’s possible.

The best gifts are found in the bookstore

Whenever I want to buy a present for someone, I often end up getting a book. It’s kind of my go-to gift. Books are great for everyone, not just “readers” or lovers of literature.

For people who say they don’t like to read, there are lots of books that are light on text and heavy on images. Actually, it doesn’t matter if the recipient can read at all. Babies and toddlers like books because they’re attracted to the colours and shapes.

As Christmas approaches, the bookstore is the only store I can stand to be in for very long. There’s no need to worry about buying the wrong size; there’s no rummaging through shelves or bins hoping to stumble upon something appropriate.

It’s possible to walk into a bookstore without a specific title in mind and manage to leave with a personalized gift. It doesn’t matter if it’s for someone you’re not very close to (books also make great hostess presents); you just have to think about what you know about the person. If they recently took a trip to Paris, get a book of photographs of the city. For the sports fan, there are several biographies of athletes available. Even if the person has already read the book, the thought put into the gift will be clear.

Years ago, my boss at the time gave me Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club for Christmas. I had already read the book and owned a copy, but the gift meant a lot to me. My boss knew I enjoyed reading novels, he knew I loved the on-screen adaptation and he’s also a film buff. So there was a personal connection.

It was personalized even more because he included an inscription. Unlike cards, which are often tossed aside or lost, the words written inside the book itself will always be there. They remind the recipient of the gift-giver and of the sentiment.

And if you’d rather not put much thought into the gift, books are still a good choice. They can entertain us, educate us, make us see the world in ways we never did before. Not to mention, they provide nice décor for the home.

I’m sure some of my family members will read this, but I’m not spoiling any surprises. They already know they’ll get a book from me this Christmas; it’s kind of an unspoken tradition. Now I just have to come up with something meaningful to write inside.