It’s a mite early yet to be mulling books for Christmas giving, and perhaps a better time to be doing some bah-humbugging of the very notion of Christmas booking.
Books and Christmas just don’t go together well, much as we try to believe otherwise. There are several reasons, the most obvious of which is that few booksellers let you return or exchange gift books, and there’s a very good chance that that’s exactly what you’ll be wanting to do with books that appear under the tree with your name on them.
Unless you tell the gift-giver exactly which book you’re hoping for, and in which edition and in what condition, you’re most likely going to end up disappointed. Even if the gift-giver picks a book that’s in a genre you like, that’s by an author you’re crazy about, that’s about a topic of passionate curiosity to you, you might have already bought and read it, or moved up to the front of the new-books waiting line at the public library. Some books are worth getting and keeping to re-read and to pass on to your posterity, but many of them aren’t -– and the ones that are ordinarily given as Christmas presents are most often the kind that aren’t.
What are you supposed to do with such books that you’ll never read and can’t exchange? They usually end up at Goodwill or in the library’s semi-annual book sale. If they’re big, heavy suckers you can use them for doorstops or well-rope counter-weights. You can’t even throw the sons-a-bitches away without guilt pangs of divers derivation. Regifting is a last resort, but self-respecting book people are virtually unanimous in thinking themselves better than that.
So unless you know the prospective gift-book recipient’s literary tastes and predilections and reading history even better than the Patriot Act enforcers do, then do everybody a favor and just forget books this holiday season, unless maybe it’s one of those hollowed-out books to hide your valuables in. Choose a nice necktie or brooch instead. An exception here is cookbooks. Preferably old ones and obscure ones. These can be passed along, or passed off, more easily and relatively guilt-free.
Another exception is Bibles. Even old pagans and backsliders like getting Bibles, if for no other reason than that it spares them the humiliating temptation of stealing the Gideon Bible out of the motel room their next trip out of town. But the gift Bible shouldn’t be fancy and flimsy and have the heft and size of a metro phone book. It should be the sturdy, usable kind that stands as a respectable colleague among the other books on the shelf and and lends itself to actually being taken down and consulted occasionally.
There might be other exceptions but I can’t think of any.
If you’re bound and determined to give books as Christmas presents anyway, at least try to avoid the schlock that the publishers throw together to market to panicky Christmas shoppers who don’t know any better. Who think that a “Christmasy”-looking is every bit as fetching –- nay, is a hundredfold more so – than an ordinary old book-looking book. This sorry stuff by tradition is both gaudy and shoddy, and is oversized and overpriced though in recent Christmases the peddlers of it have gone the other way, miniaturizing it into “stocking stuffers.” None of this waste of good trees is worth giving or getting, at Christmastime or any other time. I doubt if a single volume of it has ever been read through by anybody anywhere. If it had been the only reading material available to the Lincoln there at the Kentucky fireside, he wouldn’t have read it either.
Sticky anthologies of bad verse, with illustrations heavy on snow, evergreenery, holly berries; and sleighbells; sappy stories by Maupassant, O Henry, Dickens; and long-dead three-named white women; and a lot of interstitial “inspirational” goo. Thomas Kinkade always lurks uncomfortably nearby. The early promotional pub makes these Christmas-special pitches: “Flying Cow Book makes the perfect Christmas gift!” “Christian Christmas gift books for lovereading!” “The Big Christmas Book of Jesus Sport Statues.” (I might actually take a quick gander at that last one.)
About the only halfway respectable packaged-especially-for-Christmas book that I’ve seen since the century turned was out of the University of Mississippi Press two or three Christmases back. “Christmas Stories from Mississippi” was an omnium gatherum of holiday-themed short stories by Mississippi The lamentable part is, even a Christmas book as artfully brought off as “Christmas Stories from Mississippi” turned out to be an experiment in futility. People want to celebrate Christmas; they don’t want to read about it. Even short-story addicts (and I’m one of them) and ardent Christmasphiles (one of them, too) aren’t going to be cozying down over the holidays with an ana of Yule tales. Christmas just ain’t for reading about -– I’m sorry, Tiny Tim, but you just suck, OK? –- except peripherally, incidentally, or by way of reading the carols, the sagas of the Grinch and Rudolf and Frosty, or Clement Clarke Moore’s ever magical incantation. Golden Books are swell for Christmas –- they may even be essential -- but not many other books are.
So you’re going to tell me now that bookstore gift certificates are the answer to all these Scroogy objections to Christmas book-giving. They allow the recipient to pick out his own book, then pick it up, already paid for, at his leisure. A bibliophile’s Christmas dream come true. Well, it’s pretty to think so, as Hemingway once said. But between the idea and the reality that old shadow falls, as T.S. Eliot rejoindered. I guess I’ve got a dozen gift certificates for books, in-store and online, during the Bush Drift, and every one of them, for one reason or another, has turned out to be a pain in the ass. Some of them royal pains in the ass that threatened to erupt into real ugliness and were never satisfactorily resolved. Some of them only nuisances –- but damn it all, Christmas gift giving should be a happy experience and not an annoyance.
Most often the book or books you select cost more than the gift certificate, and you wind up resenting having to pay money out of your pocket for books that weren’t even your idea to buy them in the first place. Either that, or the book you select costs less than the gift certificate amount, and the bookseller likely won’t give you the balance in cash, so you buy something else, something additional, that you don’t want in the hope of squeezing the cost difference down to an insignificant amount, but never hitting the exact amount, and ending up resentful one way or the other over pennies.
The spirit of Noel doesn’t abide in such as this. Getting a bad book, a devoutly unwanted one, one that you regard as an abomination, is better than getting a gift certificate.