One big advantage to being a book person is that you make it really easy for those near and dear to you when they realize that your birthday was three days ago and they'd better run out and get you something and pretend they've had it all along -- since your last birthday practically -- but just haven't gotten around to giving it to you yet, what with all the feeding the poor and reading to the blind they've been so busy thinking of good reasons not to do. This is not to say that it is easy to find the perfect gift for people who, as non-book people tend to phrase it, "love to read," especially since to non-readers apparently all books look alike. It is in fact damned near impossible to shop accurately for us, for the simple reason that if we want a book we've probably already bought it. Never mind that we're always broke. Books first, bills later -- those are the priorities of the right-thinking book person.
Actually, book people are refreshingly straightforward when it comes to what they want from you in the book department. I can guarantee success if you stick to one of the following two ideas: either pony up for a nice first edition by someone everyone, readers and non-readers alike, has heard of, such as Thomas Jefferson or Jane Austen; or, if you don't mind admitting how stingy you are, pick something -- anything -- in your price range from a chain bookstore. Anything at all. You don't even have to make your usual lame attempt to stay in the range of interest of the recipient, since as usual you'll fail miserably. Whatever you choose will be sure to bring a gleam of pure pleasure to the eye of the true book person, provided always that the receipt of purchase is obvious to said eye and you haven't done anything destructively sentimental such as scribble some affectionate message on an actual page, thereby rendering the entire volume unreturnable and therefore worthless. Keep the loving words for the card, and don't ask any stupid questions later about how did the reader like the gift. I can answer that. They loved it. Every reader loves the opportunity to shop for new books, and that's what you've given.
If you're going to take the more efficient route of just plain buying a gift certificate for the person, at least have the decency to give something tangible and physical along with the pseudo-cash. Dark chocolate, a tin of tea, a beautiful bookmark -- just something, anything, to prove that you did actually consider this person worth ten or twenty seconds of actual thought on your part.
One thing not to do, no matter how tempted you are (and we've all been there), is to buy a book for someone because you think it would be good for them. Especially if it's a self-help book. If you're trying to break up with someone, either romantically or just as a friend, there's no better way to do it than to give them a book that tells them that they do not meet your standards, although they might if they were willing to put the work into it, preferably by following this handy instruction manual. Yes, yes, I know -- it's not that! It's just because this book made you so happy, and you want them to be that happy, too! Well, it's not going to come across like that. Trust me.
But even aside from self-help, it's the rare person who will genuinely welcome a book that you bought for them because it meant so much to you. Since this isn't nearly as obvious as it ought to be, I'll come right out and say that no book can mean the same thing to someone else that it did to you. I don't care if you routinely have to put sunglasses on to read this book because otherwise you'd be blinded by the sheer radiance of wisdom and knowledge and love and stuff just beaming from the pages. That kind of response almost never carries over to your nearest and dearest, no matter how much you'd like it to. That same book wouldn't have meant the same thing to you if you'd read it, say, ten years earlier. Or ten years later. And it won't mean a thing to me ten minutes before circumstances and the stars and dark-chocolate-induced caffeine levels in my blood all line up just so. Every book that has turned me upside down and inside out has come my way at just the right time, and there was no rushing that.
For every one time I've actually enjoyed something passed along to me from someone who adored it, there are at least ten when I've been left cold by some perfectly brilliant prose. I can look at the book and understand intellectually how fine it is, but for whatever reason it doesn't seize and shake me. I'll grant you that I'm a little stiff in this respect, and when I was younger I was much better at just reading pretty much whatever came my way, but I think I'm not atypical. There are people, it's true, who can be led by the nose when it comes to reading materials, but even they aren't waiting for you to do the job. They have the best-seller list for that.
But it's hard not to give something you love as a gift when you want to buy a book for someone, since it's so damnably difficult to buy them something they might love. I have a stepmother-in-law who is all things wise and wonderful, someone I spend time with even when I don't have to, someone with whom it is possible to have genuinely fabulous conversations with on all manner of subjects, and someone who would have my grateful affection even without all these qualities by virtue of the fact that she gives me the book review section out of her New York Times every week; and for the life of me I can't buy her a book she'd like to save either of our lives. It just never works. The only times I've ever come close is when I've bought her something that it turns out she already has.
I was young and stupid enough to take her at her word one year when she said she reads anything, just anything; so I gave her my current favorite two books, which were Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson. This was a good decade before all things Austen were being made into movies, mugs, key rings, jewelry, and T-shirts; if you wanted a beach towel with the text of the first page of P&P printed on it, you were out of luck unless you had a blank towel, a Sharpie, and a lot of patience. (In case you're wondering: yes, we have moved out of that dark time, and yes, you can buy such a towel.) Giving a copy of an Austen novel to someone was still a fairly unusual thing to do. Giving a copy of anything by Jackson to anyone is pretty odd even now, as you'll readily comprehend if you'd be so kind as to take twenty minutes out of your busy schedule and read something by her. Needless to say, the books sat politely on a shelf until such time as my sm-i-l could discreetly bury them in her backyard. But at least all comments about happily reading anything in the world ceased. People who say things like that are just asking for trouble.
My point, now that I've decided it's time to make one, is that books and birthdays don't always mix well. To me, though, a bookless birthday is something like a frostingless cake -- what's the damned point? (Actually, for me a bookless birthday is like a chocolateless brownie -- beyond meaningless, well into incomprehensible, and practically a contradiction in terms.) I did pretty well this year. I received a great deal of book money, as well as some actual real live books, all of which delighted me. But my bossypants editor tells me that I've run out of room to talk about them here, so I'll just have to do it somewhere else.
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