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Books as gifts – to buy or not to buy?

There is a tradition in Iceland of giving loved ones the gift of a book on Christmas Eve. Closer to home, as we frantically hit the shops to find that special present for our friends and families, it appears that the Icelanders have found a better way.

Books are affordable and accessible, suitable for all ages, and with the potential to uplift, entertain and enlighten. It makes me wonder why we bother with all of the useless knick-knacks, brightly-coloured plastic and ill-fitting clothing that are usually exchanged at this time of year closer to home.

However, before you rush out to buy books for all of your loved ones, here is a word of warning: buying a book as a gift is not as simple a task as it might seem. There are more than a few ways in which you can go wrong, leading to that dreaded moment of faux joy when the recipient opens their well-intentioned, but unsuitable, present.

One mistake that is all too easy to make is to choose a book the recipient has already read. While it is possible to make use of yet another hankie, t-shirt or pair of socks, there is little use for another copy of a book you already own.

This was the sad fate which met my boyfriend (now husband) when he proudly presented me with the first gift he had ever bought me. Sweetly, he arrived at my birthday dinner with a present in hand. Sadly, it was The Life of Pi, and I was already familiar with the twist at the end, having read it just weeks earlier. While my husband got points for buying a present so well-suited to my interests (obviously, he had learnt I was a book nerd early on), it was ultimately useless. It also made for an uncomfortable moment while I considered lying to avoid hurting his feelings.

Another problem the gift giver faces is that of the sensitivities of their loved ones – buyers should think twice before buying Atlas Shrugged for their cousin who religiously votes for the Greens, Alain de Botton’s On Love for a sister whose relationship is on the rocks, As I Lay Dying for an ailing grandparent or Anais Nin for an uptight in-law.

There is also a problem when a book is too appropriate to the circumstances of the recipient. While it might be extremely thoughtful and relevant to give your friend who has difficulty controlling their children a book titled Toddler Taming, it might not be accepted in the spirit with which it was intended.

And while your anxious sister might appreciate a mindfulness colouring in book, there is an equal likelihood she will scoff at the help it offers her … and remain tight-lipped about her problems in the future.

Perhaps the most fail safe option is to choose an almost universally-admired book such as autobiographies by Barack Obama or Magda Szubanzki, or popular yet literary fiction such as The Rosie Project or The Dressmaker.

Another alternative is to buy a book that relates to the recipient’s hobbies or interests, revealing to the recipient how well you know them and their interests. However, the problem lies in that everyone else also knows about their hobbies, and is just as likely to pounce on the idea. But, there are only so many gardening books that a green thumb can use. Just ask my father, who, on taking up golf a few years ago, accumulated every golf-related novelty item and book during the first year of birthdays, Christmases and Father’s Days.

So, giving adults gifts of books isn’t as straightforward as you might have first thought. But, surely it’s easier for kids? What parent isn’t rapt when their child receives a book rather than the latest bright plastic piece of junk that the kids will either break or discard before the Christmas pudding has been served?

The main problem is with the reception the gift giver might get from the child. Let’s just say that it’s unlikely the kid will show the same amount of enthusiasm for The 13-Storey Treehouse when they see their cousin opening Barbie’s Dream House. As wonderful as Andy Griffin’s Treehouse series might be, it is hard to compete with pink plastic.

I remember a few Christmases ago finding the perfect gift for my nephew, who was turning 14: a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I had loved reading the book during my high school years, so I expected a shriek of joy when he opened the present. Instead, he politely thanked me and moved on swiftly to his cricket set.

So, if you want to please the parents, go ahead and buy books for kids. Just make sure you sneak some Cadbury in with the present to ensure that everyone wins. And perhaps, in the future, long after the book has been read, the child will understand the true value of the gift they have received.

After all, books can be wonderful, enduring presents. As writer Neil Gaiman said,

“Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them. And it’s much cheaper to buy somebody a book than it is to buy them the whole world!”

I remember receiving a beautiful, hardcopy edition of The Secret Garden for my birthday one year when I was a child, and I felt a buzz every time I opened it. The bookish smell was unmistakable, the shiny cover was beautiful and the words ignited my imagination. These days, books are among my favourite presents, promising hours of entertainment, and a joy that I can share with others I pass them onto once I’ve finished.

The example set by the Icelanders has also revealed an additional benefit of the giving of books as gifts at Christmastime: it has resulted in a wider appreciation of books, reading and writing, which means the Nordic island has more writers, more books published and more books read per head than anywhere else in the world. If giving books as gifts led to an increased interest in reading, it would not be a bad thing. Some would say, a refreshing alternative to Barbie or Nerf guns.

Books are gifts that last, are memorable, and don’t break (unless in the hands of my toddler!), go out-of-date, clutter the house, increase your risk of diabetes or rot your teeth. And if you’re unsure of which book to give to whom, just choose one you’d like to read yourself. If it turns out that it’s not to the taste of the recipient or they already have it, you can take it home and enjoy it yourself. A merry Christmas, indeed.

No-fail books for fussy readers

  • The Kite Runner
  • The Rosie Project
  • The Dressmaker
  • Big, Little Lies
  • Gone Girl
  • Anything by Tim Winton

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