Novels Make Lousy Gifts (But We Should Give Them Anyway)

Novels make lousy gifts.

Now, if you have even a passing acquaintance with this little blog, you know that I love novels, that Biblioklept primarily focuses on novels, and that I love books in general. I am not anti-novel or anti-giving-novels-as-gifts. Send me a novel as a gift. I will appreciate it (or trade it toward another book, which is kinda sorta a form of appreciation).

I went to my favorite bookstore today, in fact, to buy some books for Christmas presents. But I restrained myself from picking up novels as gifts.

If you love books like I do, I’m sure that some of your most favorite gifts ever have been novels. Some of my most favorite gifts have been novels. The remaindered copy of The Lord of the Rings (from the South Barwon Library that some friends of the family gave me on Dec. 5th, 1990 when we visited Melbourne (the one in Australia, not Florida)) is probably one of my all-time favorite gifts. I know the exact date because the nice lady who gave it to me wrote a kind note in book and included the date in her note.

I could never bear to get rid of an inscribed book given as a gift, but lots of people do get rid of inscribed books. This is a monstrous practice, one that attests to just how easily people will discard your oh-so-earnest gifts. If you spend a lot of time in used bookstores (I do) you will come across these sad markings. Because it’s close at hand, and I’m aware of its inscription, I’ll share the note that Jean wrote to Helen (no, of course I know neither of them) in my copy of Balthus’s memoir, Vanished Splendors:


I am aware that the memoir of a pervy artist is not the same as a novel, and that, as my first illustrating example, I already seem to be losing my metaphorical balance, but again, it was close at hand, right near the Tolkien in fact (by the bye, Vanished Splendors is pure gold).

In any case, I think Balthus’s memoir “reads” like a novel, which is to say that it’s mostly big chunks of text that require time and energy to decipher, set against the backdrop of TV, internet, movies, etc. It has some pictures, but not many. There’s no gimmick to it. I’m guessing that Helen just wasn’t into Balthus, or, if she had a passing interest in his art, it didn’t translate into wanting to read his memoir. She certainly didn’t read any of it (yes, I have a special sense that tells me when a book has been read. This baby was a virgin). Every time I look over the book, I feel sorta bad for Jean, whose gift seems to have gone unappreciated (by Helen; not by me. I was happy to pick it up used).

To return to an earlier point: yes, some of our favorite gifts ever might be novels. However, most of the life-changing novels I received were rarely given as birthday or Christmas gifts. They weren’t gifts of obligation, if you’ll forgive the ugliness of that term. Most of the great novels that were given to me were handed along free of occasion, given because the giver thought (knew) I should read them.

At Christmas though, we feel obliged to give. Sometimes we get some great novels as gifts. More often though, it seems like that relative who knows you “like to read” gives you a novel by, I dunno, Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy. The worst though are those tiny little hardback books that are designed specifically to be gifts, little faux-tomes of faux-philosophy usually connected to golf or angels or some other bullshit (I was horrified last year when DFW’s “This Is Water” speech got this treatment). Anyway, if you like books, you probably just go trade in this bullshit toward the books you like.

But this post isn’t really about the problem of getting airport novels or gimmick books as gifts. This post is about those of us who insist on giving novels we love to people who we know don’t really love reading novels. Especially really big, somewhat (or very) experimental novels. Important novels. Those novels that we read and decide that everyone needs to read this to become a fully realized human being [gags on that phrase].

I think sometimes we give our friends and relatives novels as gifts because we love them so much and we also love the book so much that we are maybe gunning for an intellectual three-way. We want them to read the novel so that we can share in it together, discuss it, rant about it, argue about it (remember though: that’s what the internet is for).

What often happens though is that these gifted novels (forgive the ambiguous, awkward modifier) tend to lurk about the giftee’s abode, brickishly unread, like dour unwanted houseguests. They skulk at the margins of bookshelves or migrate to the bottom of “to read” stacks; a lucky one might find occasional fingering above a commode. They are ugly reminders to the giftee, signals of how he or she has failed to meet your expectations (your expectations re: 9 or 15 or 25 or 30 hours of her time). (Young people, by which I mean college students in the liberal arts, are the exception here; they probably aren’t going to read the novel, but they are absolutely fine with putting it out for show).

People like books with pictures though, generally.

Even though I think novels tend to make lousy gifts, we should give them to our friends and loved ones anyway, even on those days of obligated giving. We should still offer novels up like they were somehow a part of our own selves in the deluded hope that the giftee will read them and discuss them with us, and that the novel will become an internal, virtual, shared experience. We should give them knowing that it’s likely they’ll go unread, that they may even be a point of shame for the giftee (especially when we ask, “Have you started . . . ?”). We should give them aware that they might point toward our own selfish desires.

Even if a novel may be a gift that implies a certain level of intellectual work, it also implies a  sense of trust and respect toward the giftee, and in this sense, giving a loved novel is a clear way to show love.

6 thoughts on “Novels Make Lousy Gifts (But We Should Give Them Anyway)”

  1. I am constantly resiting getting friends books as gifts, unless they are one of the few that read as much as I do. Or, I try to find a book that I might not love, but that they would, but who then wants to spend any money on a book you hate, even if it is a gift?

    The other dilemma in book gifting is when you want to buy a book for someone that you think they’d like, but you haven’t read, but you also want to read, because once purchased, you sort of have to give it away immediately, before it becomes yours.

    But yes, books as gifts are so wonderful when you read every damned day. The best Christmas gift my dad ever got me was my leatherbound copy of the collected Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m easier than that though, there’s no need to get anything particularly memorable, just buy me books. My landlords are also my best friends, and massive readers (when we remodeled their half of the house, one room became a library, floor to ceiling bookshelf, wall-to-wall on one wall, including above the doorway, and smaller bookshelf on the other three walls) and all they’ve ever gotten me as gifts are books. We’ve discussed it, I’m the easier person to buy gifts for, just send me some books. (Addendum, when we remodeled my bedroom, I also got a floor to ceiling bookshelf, though not as wide.)


  2. == Book-gifting as a Buoyancy for Authorship ==

    Touche, Sir Biblioklept!

    I like to keep in mind that one’s gifting a friend/relative/co-worker/neighbor with ANY kind of book (on any occasion) also indirectly serves as a gift to the book’s author — in the sense of having spread (serendipitously) the word about this valuable product in human discourse.

    In this regard, sometime after xmas, I plan to give my daughter a copy of novelist Dean Koontz’s tribute to his beloved golden retriever, Trixie, who died a few years ago (“A Big Little Life: A Memoir of a Joyful Dog”). During a recent visit with my daughter to a thrift store in Newport News, Va., I found a mint-condition copy of this book, choosing to buy it not because of any intense affection for dogs but because of my fondness for Koontz’s prose. Now, I’ll be passing on this copy to my daughter because of her fondness for her three dachshunds. Of course, Koontz won’t be making any profit from this transaction, but he should know that it will endear yet another reader to the joys of his writerly persona — as well as to the spirit of his canine comprehension. — Larry W. Bryant (21 Dec 11)


  3. Hi, Larry and P.T.,

    I’m not really sure if I wrote a very articulate post. I’m mostly reacting to having gone to the bookstore that afternoon and having had to restrain myself from buying used copies of Infinite Jest, 2666, The Rings of Saturn and Blood Meridian, novels I love but am pretty sure would not be great gifts (the people who WOULD like these books already own them, in most cases).

    I also drank a lot of red wine as I composed, so, yeah.


  4. I actually understood that, I was just sharing my own experience with books as gifts, both giving and receiving. I also have the same experienced what you clarified towards. I’ve actually had that discussion with the friends I talked about in my comment — they have doubles of lots of books, but all the people they think would actually like any, already have it.I

    also suspected the wine, but I’m on the same boat tonight, so.

    There’s also a postcript to my comment — the same friends walked into the local bookshop and bought all, all, of the Nabokov they have (me and wife of them have been on a Nabokov binge), which included three copies of Transparent Things and seconds of at least one they already knew I had, as their Christmas gift to me.


  5. […] I leave stuff in books all the time. In fact, I almost always leave something (a movie stub, a photo, a note, a picture my son or daughter drew, something) in each book I finished.  (I even wrote about it a bit last year). So I guess Miss Moss, the old librarian in Gass’s Middle C would be royally pissed with my habits. I read this passage a day or two after a visit to my favorite used bookstore, where, looking for books by Grace Paley, I came across an uncracked copy of Breece D’J. Pancake’s super sad super terrific collected stories. I own the book, but in a different edition (fox on the cover), so I grabbed it out. Lo and behold, a postcard!–and of a scene straight out of Pancake’s own semi-beloved West Virginia, no less! The note, a token of friendship, accompanied an inscription in the book itself—is there anything sadder than an inscribed book abandoned to a used bookstore? […]


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