Like most voracious readers, I have to be frugal with my purchases—so while most of the books I buy as gifts are new, most of the books I buy for myself are used. I enjoy the idea that these books have lived several lives, moving from one place and one person to another before they get to me.
Even better is when I feel I sort of know my virtual reading family thanks to names written on flyleaves or bookplates—Kindrick Dyer, Joni Dakon, Syvia H. Malcolm, Art Flynn—these mysterious people and many more have shared their books with me over the years (and often their marginal notes too). On the other hand, finding a book with a personal inscription can be unsettling. “To Sheila, Christmas 1974, Love, Mom.” “5/5/66—To Jim with Love, Bette.” Like going to a rummage sale and discovering a donated photo album with all the family pictures intact, it’s a mystery that leaves me a little lost.
It made me wonder how many of the books I’d inscribed and gifted now fill the shelves of various thrift stores on the eastern seaboard. I’ve given hundreds of books over the years, most with notes of heartfelt sentiment, and while I hardly expect every recipient to hang onto these books forever, I thought that this year I’d think a little harder about my choices. What books could I give that won’t end up tossed into the Goodwill bin a week into the New Year? Or even better—what book could I give a friend that she’d then pass on to another friend, like an ever-mobile library where we all are paying it forward with books?
I decided to poll friends and family over which books they’ve given (or plan to give) as gifts, as well as the all-important why. I had only one rule—I wouldn’t ask the opinion of any writers, simply because we love books with an intensity that can become a little myopic when it comes to recommendations. I ended up with a delightfully broad selection of books from a delightfully broad cast of characters. I hope you’ll find something below to share with someone this season or to read yourselves. If not, please make your own recommendations in the comments!
And finally, remember that no matter what books you might choose to buy, everything goes better with a Ploughshares subscription . . .
Books Good for Giving (in no particular order):
“This year I’ve given two books to my five closest work/friend peers: Frank Partnoy’s Wait and Broken Vessels by Andre Dubus. The first is a book about process and how to live with grace, and the second, in many instances, includes essays with descriptions of that grace.”
—Steve (director of a public policy non-profit)
“I gave my sister The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock. She says after all the hardcore medical stuff she has to read forher career she only wants to read fluff in her spare time. Elric was my favorite book as a child—Moorcock isn’t as good at the genre as Tolkien but it’s a fun, immature, swashbuckling romp!”
—Reynard (artist and Mardi Gras float designer)
“Although it blows my mind that there even needs to be a book like this, I’d give How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.”
—Alan (helicopter pilot)
“I’ve given the collected works of Shakespeare to three or four people over the years. From the time I was eighteen until I was about thirty, it was ALWAYS on my nightstand. I used to bring it camping, even. It was a constant companion for years and I wanted others to realize what I saw and learned from it.”
—Bill (systems engineer)
“For the past two years, we’ve given my father-in-law a subscription to audible.com and will probably do so again. And I do a lot for kids. I’ve given lots of Richard Scarry’s books, especially his collections. And I have given Where the Wild Things Are a million times.
—Meredith (V.P. of a medical non-profit)
“Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple—hands down this was my favorite book in recent memory. I found myself laughing out loud more than once at this hilarious social satire on the plight of the upper middle class urbanite. I thought the use of storytelling through a series of emails was creative, effective and relevant for today. Already I’ve given this book to my best friend, my husband, a writer friend and my sister-in-law.”
—Alison (interior designer)
“I’d give The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz because I think it gives you lessons to live by.”
—Nancy (social worker)
“The Giver by Lois Lowry because it’s so powerful.”
—Nicole (administrative assistant)
[Editor’s note: see also Rebecca Makkai’s open letter(s) to Lois Lowry, which appeared on the blog earlier this week.]
“Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is the best book I have ever read. Not just because it is so well written (and each sentence itself is truly, beautifully written), but because there, in the middle of an epic and engaging historical novel, I regained a sense of wonder I didn’t know I had lost. Reading it was a transformative experience.
If that’s too fawning and uber-sensitive, let me suggest the compilation The Simple Art of Murder (containing the essay of the same name) by Raymond Chandler, if for no other reason than it contains the following gem:
‘The British may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.’ Zing.”