Let’s talk about this: what’s the best book you ever got — or gave — as a gift?

Christmas decorations

This time of year, those of us who work with manuscripts for a living are inundated with questions from would-be Santas, ranging from the vague (“My co-worker loves to read — what should I get her?”) to the categorical (“What book should I give a 10-year-old boy?”) to the specific (“My best friend has read everything Maeve Binchy has ever written, and I’d love to introduce her to a new obsession. What author would you recommend?”) As flattering as such requests are, as a pro, my first instinct is to respond with a barrage of follow-up questions. What is the co-worker currently reading? What’s that 10-year-old like? What in particular about Mme. Binchy has captivated this friend?

Surprisingly often, the askers are taken aback by being expected to provide more information. Isn’t a great book a great book, period? Why wouldn’t any 10-year-old boy adore any well-written novel aimed at kids his age equally? Shouldn’t someone who works with books for a living just have a mental Rolodex of fabulous authors, cross-indexed by similarity to bestselling authors?

For those of you not already clutching your sides and screaming with laughter, the answers are: a great book for one reader will not be a great book for another; no, because kids have personal tastes — and personalities — just as adults do; why, yes, I do, but half the books on it have not yet been published. And in response to the implication that I’m just not trying hard enough, today alone I recommended Heidi Durrow’s stunning debut The Girl Who Fell From the Sky to an aspiring literary fiction author’s Secret Santa, William Gibson’s genre-shaping Neuromancer to a budding science fiction aficionado’s mom, William Pene Dubious charming The Twenty-One Balloons to an English professor at a loss about what to give his young nephew (oh, you would give ULYSSES to a 10-year-old?), and spent 45 minutes discussing how the Kindle’s ability to allow the reader to alter font, typeface, and orientation on the page changes the reader’s experience of writing patterns.

I’ve been on the job, in short. But now, I would like to hear your suggestions.

Rather than limiting what I hope will be a full and rich array of excellence across book categories, I’m going to keep it general: what was the best book you ever received as a gift, and why? Did you ever give the same book to somebody else, because it affected you so much, or did you hoard all of that literary goodness for yourself?

Or, for you inveterate book-givers, what is the best book you ever gave somebody else? How did you know it was the right book at the right time for that person?

I shall be looking forward to restocking my mental Rolodex with your marvelous suggestions. In the meantime, I’m going to get this laptop off my lap before my doctor notices. Keep up the good work!

16 Replies to “Let’s talk about this: what’s the best book you ever got — or gave — as a gift?”

  1. Funny… I’ve been thinking back and came to a rather startling conclusion:

    In my whole life, no one – no matter that everyone I know knows that I’m a bookworm – has ever given me a book for Christmas.

    I wonder why…

    1. Misha–I know why no one gives me books. It’s because I’ve already bought them by the time the holiday rolls around. They know I love Stephen King but that I probably already have his latest.

      I can’t think of any books I felt that way about that I received as a gift. I would have to say the best thing was my parents giving permission for me to check out books from the Adult section of the library (books for adults, not “adult” books, heh heh). That’s where I discovered Stephen King. Thanks for that, Mom and Dad.

      For a kid like me, that’s a good gift. Not just one book, but ALL the books.

      Feel better, Anne. That’s an order!

      1. The permission element was key in my childhood, too, Elizabeth. My parents had a rule that if it was in our house, I could read it — which gave them just enough control. And a certain amount of regret when I picked up the Jimmy Carter interview in Playboy when I was in the 4th grade.

    2. I’m pretty stunned to hear that, too, Misha! Whoever does your PR has been falling down on the job, clearly.

      Seriously, not even a gift certificate to Amazon?

  2. I’ve never given nor gotten a book as a gift, aside from ones designated on a wish list.

    To me, books are a more personal item than lingerie. I’d never presume to give one unbidden to anyone, and I’d probably be slightly annoyed if someone gave me one (that wasn’t on my wish list).

    I’m glad to recommend titles to people; they can make up their own minds whether they’re interested or not. My success rate on this is somewhere around 20%, which also doesn’t bode well for my giving books to others.

    1. I’m just fascinated by this non-gifting phenomenon, Doug. Yes, books are personal, but how is one to fall in love with new writers without the help of others?

      Especially when one is young and may not have the wherewithal to buy books for oneself. I’ve been furiously giving a young relative of mine books based upon her current likes, dislikes — and, if I’m honest about it, in reaction to some fairly political books her stepfather has been foisting upon her of late. Instead of saying, “Um, sweetie, are you familiar with the word propaganda?” I’ve been talking with her about what she likes about the dreaded tomes, then tracking down better books with similar traits, so we can talk about those. At least she knows now that it is possible to put a message in a book, and the reader has the choice whether to accept or reject it.

    2. Well, Anne, for me it’s the difference between a recommendation and an obligation. I might tell someone that I think they might like author Jane Q. Smith because she writes zombie romances, although she does have a tendency to write descriptive passages that go on and on. Then it’s up to that person to decide whether Smith sounds interesting or not, to check out what other people think about Smith, and perhaps which of Smith’s books to start with. To me that’s a lot more considerate than giving them a copy of “Eat Brains, Prey, Love”. [Oh, I do hope there’s not really a book by that title; Google didn’t find one.]

      As for children, I haven’t been in a position where I’ve felt I should interfere with their parents’ guidance. Maybe I’m just lucky.

      1. Given that view of courtesy, I’m no longer surprised that that no one has ever bought you a book, Doug — to do so sounds like it would be endangering a friendship! I can understand your feeling that literary taste is entirely personal, but you’ll pardon me, I hope, if I find that view rather extreme: whether you buy a book for someone else or merely recommend it, you’re simply saying that you think that Person X might like Book Y; the only real difference lies in who is paying for the book. The recipient might question the giver’s literary taste, but unless the content is offensive, it’s hard to see where the potential for affront lies.

        Unless, of course, the giver is rude enough to say, “Hey, George, you have lousy literary taste. Cast each and every one of your treasured volumes into the recycling bin immediately, and from this day forth, read only what I give you.”

        Then, I agree you might run into some problems, but it’s not as though the mere fact of giving a book to another person somehow deprives him of the ability to judge it for himself. Unless the giver is practicing some sort of mind control, it’s palpably untrue. In fact, by placing the book in his hand, you’re giving him more of an opportunity to judge for himself than if you merely issued a recommendation, since he now has actual evidence upon which to base his opinion — and to evaluate yours.

        Even if the average reader objected to being given books (very rarely true, in my experience), the thou-shalt-not-give stance is rather surprising to see coming from a writer. Most writers live in hope that someday, other people will buy their books. From a practical perspective, there is a vast difference between actually supporting an industry you hope one day will support you and just encouraging others to support it by buying the books you recommend. Even if the books-are-rude-gifts theory were widely held, on an ethical basis, it does not pass the classic Kantian test: you might feel that it works for you, but would you will it to be a universally-held principle? In other words, if everyone embraced the practice, would the world be a better place?

        It definitely wouldn’t be for writers: if everyone embraced the philosophy that it’s inconsiderate to buy books for others, book sales would plummet. That would have tangible results for writers: the harder it is for publishers to sell books, the less likely they are to take a chance on a new writer. It would also be bad for readers, since less risk-taking generally means a narrower array of books available for purchase. Even if one is buying books only for oneself, that’s obviously not a good outcome.

        As for the implication that parents are the only proper shapers of a child’s literary tastes: in my experience, most children rely far more heavily upon adults who are not their parents for books — and book recommendations — than upon their parents. Bookstore employees, teachers, and, yes, literate aunties and uncles often play a huge role in what ends up on a child’s bookshelf, if anything. Many parents have a much clearer idea of what their kids should NOT be reading than what they should, and even those parents who regularly buy books for their children rarely read them themselves first.

        But none of that is really relevant to the issue of what books a well-read adult might want to give a smart child — or, to cast it as you have, whether it would be presumptuous to pass a well-chosen book along to someone who might love it. Parents who would hate for their kith and kin to encourage their kids to read by giving them books may exist, but again, I suspect it’s a rather rare taste. As I mentioned in this very post, parents regularly ASK me for these recommendations; nay, at the height of the TWILIGHT craze, they positively begged.

        Thanks for clarifying your earlier comment, though. Now that we know your feelings on the subject, I tend to doubt that anyone in the Author! Author! community will affront you in future by offering you a review copy of her book — which is, incidentally, generally considered a positive gesture amongst professional writers.

        But does anyone have some pro-book stories to share?

  3. The best book I was ever given was Anne of Avonlea. Yes, I’ve given that book (or others in the series) to others a couple of times, and once recommended them to a divorced dad that was trying to buy a book for his daughter and the bookseller could only shrug.

  4. Best book received? Why that would have to be copies of the original three Horatio Hornblower books by C. S. Forester. My grandmother gave them to me, not long after I’d discovered the series. I think they were used, library books that had been taken out of circulation, perhaps. Read many times, BEAT TO QUARTERS, SHIP OF THE LINE, and FLYING COLOURS, still sit on my shelf, although they are somewhat delapidated and worn, the centerpiece of the entire Hornblower set, the remainder being newer paperback editions.

    A few weeks ago, an elderly gentleman fell and injured himself at the club where I work. I tried to be of assistance to his wife and him. Evidently I was successful, as their daughter-in-law later brought me a couple bottles of wine as a thank you gift. Because they were so thoughtful, because I always enjoyed talking with the gentleman, and knowing he faces a long slow recovery, I printed out a copy of my first book for him to read.

    I guess that would make him a “first reader,” although I’m not expecting him to comment or critique. Rather, I hope he enjoys the tale told therein, and that reading it helps him pass the time.


    1. What a sweet idea, Dave. Since most people don’t know any writers (or don’t know that they know any writers), it can be a big thrill to read a manuscript.

      1. I found out today that giving the gentleman the copy of my manuscript has made a big difference in his recovery. From what his daughter-in-law told me, he had been quite despondent, just going through the motions of day to day existance. Now, she says, he wants to be propped up so he can read (my book!) and is verbally fending off other family members who also want to read it. Knowing that makes this a GREAT CHRISTMAS for me. Plus, I got another bottle of wine out of it!

        Isn’t this the real reason we write?

          1. Oh, I’m sure I will pass along the sequel to him. I might even include what there is of #3. (It seems to be taking longer to get it written for some reason.)

  5. Throughout my childhood, my dad made a habit of leaving books as presents on my pillow. It wasn’t for any sort of occasion; he did it because he knew I loved to read and wanted to encourage me. I read Dracula for the first time because of one of his donations!

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