By Sarah Evans, dMLIS
Ah, June. A month full of birthdays, weddings, and, for many of us, graduations. As information people, we often choose to give others that classic information bearing object: the book. Perhaps this month you will give your favorite grad a copy of the classic Oh, the Places You'll Go! in honor of her bright future. Or an illustrated version of the poem "Desiderata" to encourage him on his journey. One of my favorite books to share is the reflective Peace is Every Step by the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. Yet, I've recently began to reconsider my gifting habits after receiving some less than stellar presents. So to help you in your purchases this month, I'm offering five simple rules for buying a book that the recipient will appreciate.
Sarah's Simple Rules for Purchasing Gift Books:
1.) Buy something that they (not necessarily you) would enjoy reading.
This would seem self evident, but I assure you it is not. Think about it. How many times have you read something and thought, "Wow, this was great! I want my friends to read this so they can have a great experience. Then we can talk about it and it will be wonderful." Nice plan, but it only works if your friends truly like to read the same kind of book as you. My boss's friend sent her every title in the particularly preachy Left Behind series as each came out. She's not a practicing Christian nor does she read religious fiction, so she just turned over each copy to the public library collection. My dad and I have traded books back and forth for years because we both like mystery, adventure, and a little fantasy. He also loves westerns and I enjoy an occasional chick lit title. But we don't give each other books from those genres as presents. We may suggest or offer such a title, but we each realize that the other person would find reading it slightly painful. Gifts that cause pain are not good.
2.) Consider the timing of your gift.
When selecting a gift, consider the recipient's frame of mind and what is happening in their life. A friend who seems depressed of late may have difficulty seeing the irony in Groening's Life in Hell series. Instead of laughing, she might take it as proof that her life is pointless. I remember showing a soon-to-be graduate student strips from School is Hell thinking he would laugh at the farce of higher education. Instead he turned pale and excused himself from the room. Whoops.
My mother-in-law has a history of breaking this rule. In generous fashion, she gives me the books that she really enjoyed. I'll never forget when she insisted that I read the Pulitzer Prize winning House Made of Dawn. I'm sure it was a wonderful, fascinating novel. But I was 9 months pregnant during an abnormally hot July. I would read two paragraphs then pass out on my couch. I made it through the whole book but don't really know what happened. The tradition was carried on last Christmas when she sent me three lengthy tomes that highlight the rough, gritty lives of multiple characters throughout history. I wondered, "Did she forget I'm in graduate school?" The articles I have to read for class are long and gritty. When I read for fun, I want it to be exactly that: FUN.
3.) Avoid self-help titles and other books that send strong "should" messages.
When facing the prospect of a tight job market, a graduate is unlikely to enjoy a book like The Millionaire Next Door. She is currently more concerned about finding a source of income than building a fortune. Likewise, unless they've actually asked for it, a book on how to improve your appearance might be more alarming than helpful to the average person. Are you saying that their appearance is less than pleasing? When giving a book as a gift, you essentially say, "I think this is a book you need to read." Therefore, it is wise to consider what different books tell the receiver about themselves and your opinion of them.
Last month, I was excited when I noticed the package my brother and sister-in-law had brought for my birthday. Even wrapped, I can spot a book. Had they remembered that author I told them I liked last summer? Eagerly, I unwrapped my present and discovered Finding the Hero in Your Husband: Surrendering the Way God Intended. I'd never even heard of this book. And it's not one I ever would have selected to read. My sweet relatives told me it was on a list of recommended titles and they had both read it and thought it was just wonderful. While I smiled and expressed gratitude, my mind was reeling with questions. "Do they think I need this book? Do they think I'm a bad wife? Am I a bad wife? Do I not give my husband enough credit for his hard work? Did he complain about me to his brother, so they bought me this book? IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH ME?" Instead of engendering affection and appreciation for my family, this gift triggered an anxiety attack. A good gift is one that brings forth positive feelings, not self-doubt for the recipient.
4.) Check around to find out what they might actually want.
The faux pauxs described in the first three rules could easily have been avoided by checking online or checking with someone close to the gift recipient. Many booklovers I know maintain active wish lists with online book sellers such as Amazon. Also, anyone who likes books is likely to discuss titles she or he is most interested in with their spouse, partner, or best friend.
I maintain a book and media wish list on Amazon.com. My mother-in-law claims she looks for the books I've listed in her local stores but can't find them. Since I have about 60 items listed, I find that somewhat implausible. In contrast, my parents consult with my husband and surprise me with an item or two off my list each holiday. Often, I put the item on my wish list so long ago, I have forgotten about it. So not only do they manage to surprise me, but they actually give me a book I'm happy to receive.
5.) If all else fails, think about the freedom of choice.
If you have applied the four rules listed above and feel uncertain about selecting a gift book for someone, remember two simple words: gift certificate. Almost every retailer, from the large chain to a small independently owned store, offers gift certificates or cards. Estimate the amount of money you are willing to spend on the person, then have the store put the same amount on a gift card. Some have balked at this as a "lazy" way to give, but I say it has many advantages. It allows you to support a merchant you enjoy while possibly introducing the venue to your gift recipient. If the recipient isn't as book crazy as you thought, she may select an alternative product offered at that store, such as journals, games, or even music. Best of all, you are giving the recipient an excuse to put his cares aside and trip lightly through the shelves of a bookstore. Considering the pace of modern life, this is a tremendous gift in and of itself. If someone added an offer of babysitting my kids to that gift certificate, I would know that the giver truly understood and cared for me. After all, that's the purpose of the gift; to acknowledge the recipient and let them know that you care.
My best wishes for your shopping adventures and to the successful graduates of 2005!