Fear and Loathing in Book Gifting

“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!” ~Neil Gaiman

I was raised to think that books are the quintessential gift. They work well for the people you know best (you can grab the latest in the series they love), or for the new friends or coworkers in your life (always great to force your favorite books on others).

Books are perfect for the post-collegiate bank account, parents who want to instill an appreciation of knowledge and imagination in their children, and those who simply want to share something they love with others.

But like any other gift, books are complicated to shop for.

The first time I ran into trouble with this was my 22nd birthday. I could tell when my boyfriend handed me the lightweight, gently wrapped rectangle that I was about to receive a book, and I couldn’t be more excited.

“Now this is a great boyfriend,” I thought to myself. “He doesn’t have to spend a lot of money to show me that he listens and cares and knows that reading is important in my life.”

But what was the book? One of his favorites? One with a protagonist I reminded him of? I couldn’t tear the paper off fast enough.

And that’s when I found myself holding Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death. This is a book title that leaves little to the imagination: the entire thing is about the ultimate despair of the human condition. It’s not exactly a book you want to receive on your birthday, particularly the birthday following the discovery of your first gray hair.

I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, so I thanked him. I’m still not sure to this day if it was a morbid joke or he was just somewhat delusional, but needless to say, eventually that relationship blew up. (Though I will say, as a philosophical work that book is pretty interesting.)

Of course, being on the book-giving end isn’t easy, either.

I bought a co-worker Lolita over last Christmas, thinking that he’d love it as much as I did. He came back from his vacation with a strange look on his face. Though he acknowledged that the writing was phenomenal, he found the whole thing off-putting and disturbing. A pretty normal reaction to Lolita, but still, I wound up wishing I’d just handed him something a bit safer like Tina Fey’s book or even a Dan Brown-esque piece.

But as with any not-so-perfect gift, they often make for good stories.

The boyfriend-Kierkegaard incident has been a party favorite for years. And when you do get it right, it’s really right. I still feel indebted to my dad for giving me Lonesome Dove for my birthday this year, and my mom for handing me The Hobbit years ago. Books like that mean much more to me than any shopping spree or expensive meal.

[photo credit: photo.ua/Shutterstock.com]

RIFers! What’s the best or worst book you’ve ever received? Do you buy books as gifts?

  • techeditor

    I love to buy books for friends and relatives. I search for a book that will be just right for that particular person. But, in the end, I’m afraid I enjoy picking the book more than they like it.
    The best books I receive are those I pick out myself.