Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Best Gift

For those of you expecting Julie here today, sorry, you're stuck with me again, while Julie gives her hands a needed rest. She'll be back soon.

In the meantime, I spent this past Monday night doing an onstage chat with the multi-talented Robert J Wiersema, a bestselling author who's also, in his own words, a "promiscuous reviewer" and, for the past twenty years, a dedicated bookseller. We were meant to be promoting his new novel, Bedtime Story, but as writers will do, we strayed slightly off topic, and ended up talking about what his job in the bookstore has taught him, and how he's observed that there's often a very great difference between what book someone will choose as a gift for a person they don't know that well (this is when, Robert says, people go for the prize-winning novels, the big books that everyone's talking about), and the book that same person would buy as a gift for an intimate friend.

For our friends, he's noticed, we choose to give books that have meant something to us; have touched us, perhaps even changed us. We're giving, in essence, a bit of ourselves, neatly bound between covers.

I know this is certainly true when I buy for my children. I wander away from the "New and Hot" table and search out the Little House books and The Wind in the Willows, or Owls in the Family, all bits of my own happy childhood.

When it comes to my grown-up friends, I tend to tailor the book to the person as much as I can, so it's arguably more a little piece of them that I'm trying to give, to show how much I value them and understand and love them. For instance, I might buy my husband a book that I know he's been longing to have, even though it might be one I'd never read myself.

But I do squirrel away extra copies of my best-loved books: Mary Stewart's classics, Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice and The Chequerboard, and Gregory Clark's May Your First Love Be Your Last, among others. And when I give them to people, I actually do feel I'm sharing a bit of myself.

With the holidays swiftly approaching, I know I'll be spending a lot of time combing the bookstores for gifts; only now, thanks to Robert, I'll also be sneaking a glance at what others are buying, and trying to guess from their choice of book whether they're buying for people they work with, or people they love.

Come back Sunday, when Anna will be posting (unless she gets waylaid and winds up drinking wine and watching Robert Downey, Jr. movies with our Julie...)


  1. I've begun my book buying for Christmas but now I'll be watching everyone else. I also tend to talk other people buying books and if possible try and encourage them to books I have enjoyed.

    I am always touched when someone gives me a book that they have loved even if in the end I didn't like. In one case where i loved the book the most amazing friendship grew out of friend Jamila gave me Leo the African which has become one of my all time favourites....

    Love the cat photo!


  2. That's really interesting, Susanna, I've never thought about that before, but it's so true! I bought my children my favourite stories as well (and was deeply offended when they didn't like the Famous Five!!) and I always try and buy books I think people will like.

    Having said that, I hate receiving books as presents myself, unless the person giving it knows me very well. There's nothing worse than being given a book you know you're going to loathe, but then having to read it so you can tell the giver how much you enjoyed it (with fingers crossed behind your back of course). I'd much rather be given a book voucher so I can choose for myself and if I'm buying for a person I don't know, that's what I'd get them too.

  3. Ooo great topic!! In my family most of our Christmas lists are books. In fact I am in charge of the bulk Amazon order for my parents books and it is lovely to buy them something they really want.

    I love buying people books I have loved. I do try and work out what I know they like and find something that they might enjoy. There is someone I want to buy a book for this Xmas who is proving tricky... but boy is it fun having a look.

    Most people don't buy me books as gifts anymore because they are never certain if I have already read them. I like book tokens, it feels like getting free books.