Friday, December 16, 2011

Writerly Gifts

Well, what else did you think I was going to blog about this week? You’ve got one week left before Christmas, and those freaky writer-types on your list. Before you pull a Tribbiani and get them the 100th fancy pen they’ve received in their lives, let me help you out. For one thing, you should think about the fact that just because someone is a writer or loves reading, it doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy receiving the usual presents, like pretty scarves or fruitcake. But, if you want to get someone a gift that connects to their love of words, I have some ideas for you, all of which I’ve linked to Amazon. Just click on any of the pictures. Ain’t I helpful?

The obvious go-to gift this year (again) is an e-reader. The Kindle Fire is the hot one this year, I suppose, but the terrible thing about the e-reader idea is . . . . Well, there’s a few bad things. For one, make sure the person is receptive to the whole idea of e-books. Some people just aren’t. For example, although I love the idea of space-saving (you don’t know clutter until you marry two writer-academics and stick them in a one-bedroom), most of the books I want to read aren’t available as e-books, at least not yet. Poetry, for example, is not as well-represented in the e-market as prose, and a lot of the prose is also bestselling and/or genre fiction. Some little obscure book that I got in my head to read isn’t necessarily going to be available as an e-book. Moreover, if your writerly pal is receptive to e-books, it’s likely he or she already has an e-reader, or, if not, then someone else in their lives is going to get them one, or they’ve already gotten one for themselves. In other words, investigate.

A really great choice for
the general book lover.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s discuss old-fashioned books. First tip: when giving a book as a gift, get a nice edition. Splurge for the hardcover, the first edition, or the anniversary or other fancy edition if it’s a classic. A signed edition is especially valuable. It’s a gift, remember? I can get the paperback edition at the drugstore myself, thank you very much. Second tip: unless the book is rare and you want to preserve its value, take the time to write an inscription. Unlike an author signature, a gift inscription simply tells the person you are giving the book to something about why you’re giving it, and reminds them, later, whom they received the gift from. It’s an old-fashioned practice that not many people know about anymore, but I think it’s wonderful and adds a personal touch to the gift. Etiquette varies, so anywhere on the first page is fair game. For wonderful examples, check out The Book Inscriptions Project.

A book about bookplates.
While we’re on the subject of inscriptions, a great book gift that is not a book (and can also be cheap, although fancy, personalized ones exist) is bookplates. There are many kinds of bookplates, but what you need to know, basically, is that they exist! Lots of people have never seen one of these, but they are basically a means of putting your name in your book. Far from being simply a way to get your book back if someone borrows it or you lose it, bookplates can be an art form. Some are self-stick, some aren’t; do some exploring and find one you like.
Really cool bookplates.
But what about books themselves? Hold your horses. First, know that giving someone a book is very personal, just like clothes, movies, or music. Don’t give someone too specific a book unless you know them well, in which case you probably don’t need my help. If you want some general suggestions, here’s a few.

Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Anyone who enjoys reading and writing will appreciate this classic. It’s perfectly okay to have a working copy, like I do, and a nice edition, like the illustrated one.
A Freaking Awesome Dictionary. While MS Word comes with a dictionary and there are many excellent dictionaries online, someone who’s really into words will appreciate a good, comprehensive dictionary, especially one that is not for general use, like a usage dictionary, for example, or a latest edition that has the most recent changes to the language.

A Great Edition of a Classic Work
. While a new book is a little risky if you don’t know someone’s tastes very well, there are a few books most people appreciate. For example, Shakespeare. While a comprehensive Shakes is a bit much for the average person, a nice edition of a single workthe favorite play, or, for the romantic interest, the complete sonnetscan make for a beautiful gift. Speaking of sonnets, if you really want to give a classic romantic gift, EBB’s Sonnets from the Portuguese is a real panty-dropper. Or, if you happen to know the person’s favorite author, go for it.

A Great Edition of a Children’s Classic. Okay, so I’m stealing the idea from Friends, but this is a really cool idea! I received a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! when I was in college, and it was really romantic! The idea can also work for children, of course, or even new parents. You could even tweak it a little and get a revamped version of a classic, but the nostalgic swoon won’t be the same. Think Nancy Drew, Little Women, Heidi, Little House on the Prairie, or a nice Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

A Cross-Medium or Unusual Choice. Like the favorite author idea, but don’t want to give yet another copy of the novel or collection of poems you’re sure the person already has? Go the unusual routeart by the poet, a biography, a study, a work inspired by the favoritein other words, something about the favorite writer rather than by him or her. Please note that the fan of Jane Austen may not necessarily enjoy a zombie version of her work.

A Beautiful Cookbook. People who love books are art lovers in general, and cooking is an art many writers love. Think about it: like writing, cooking is both art and craft, and something you do at home. Moreover, many cookbooks are way beyond a collection of recipes, and have a narrative and artistic component. If you want to give a book and the person cooks, a cookbook may be a fun gift, especially is you pair it with a great bottle of wine (something else writers are notoriously fond of).

Words & Music. Another thing word lovers love is music. Everyone is buzzing about the new Springsteen book, for example, which is a) a book, b) about music, c) a photography book, and d) a memoir. Springsteen is one of those musicians readers and writers loveexcellent lyrics. Music is perhaps an even more personal choice than books, but if you happen to know a person’s musical tastes, I bet you can find a great book to go with it.

. From paintings to photography, some of the most beautiful book gifts are art books. Again, personal tastes make this choice difficult, but, if you happen to know what kind of art the person likes, a great art book is a wonderful choice, or an art print. A friend who knew I had written a Christopher Columbus poem recently gave me a beautiful print of Columbus before the Council of Salamanca. I thought that was awesome! Framed or unframed, if you can make a connection like that, you’re guaranteed a memorable gift.

A Book Related to the Person or an Upcoming Event. This takes a little more finesse, but a little thinking can land you the right choice without getting too risky. Is the person planning a trip soon? A great travel guide, dictionary, or historical book about the country can make for a great gift. Pregnant? A classic like Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. Any teachers on your list might enjoy The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal, from the Beloit Mindset List writers, which lots of educators like to read to see “what the kids are up to.”

People don’t often think of books as gifts, but they can be wonderful: cheap, readily available, easy to wrap. The problem is that not everyone enjoys books, and that those who do can be intimidating and mysterious. You don’t have to guess at whether someone will like the book you choose, however, if you put a little thought into it. It’s no different from getting someone a shirt, really. And you never have to worry about sizing!


  1. Hmmmm...the Springsteen memoir...;)

    For the record, I adore bookplates, though I don't always actually get them into my books because I am lazy and disorganized. However, they make a great gift for a booklover.

    Your idea about getting a classic in a terrific or fancy edition is perfect, by the way. May I recommend the illustrated edition of Darwin's Origin of the Species that came out a few years ago? And my son just loved a leather-bound complete Sherlock Holmes.

    Last but not least--when possible, purchase your books at an independent bookstore if you can find one!

  2. Thanks, Tawnysha. And thanks for the recs, Ann. I must object to the leather-bound suggestion, however, unless it's pleather. Do be careful of that if you're giving a book--though I try to be polite, getting a leather book or purse or anything is very upsetting when you're a vegetarian!

  3. True. I tend to forget that leather is also an animal product.


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