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Editorial: Favorite Gift Books

Photo from Flickr user quinn.anya (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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With the holidays among us, email on a short hiatus, and a few new books on our bedside tables, several of us from the Lead Pipe would like to share some thoughts about what makes for a great gift book to give or to receive. Our favorite gifts books may not all be in Amazon’s Best Sellers list, but we offer our own short list with a healthy helping of caveats and opinions. What’s your favorite book to give or receive?


I have a theory of gift giving:

1. A gift should be something its recipient wants. It makes no difference whether they know they want it or not, which is the aspect of gift giving that always used to throw me off. To come up with the perfect surprise or, alternatively, to fulfill a long held wish; this was the conundrum. Half the time I would get obsessed with finding something they didn’t know they wanted but would light up their face the moment they opened it; the sort of present that would forever change their lives for the better. The other half of the time I would get obsessed with getting them the thing they always wanted. Now I don’t worry about it. If I feel pretty sure they want a gift, I’m happy to get it for them, provided it meets my other criteria.

2. A gift should be something its giver actually likes. Let’s pretend someone I love is really into cooking and really into science, and let’s pretend I’m in the habit of buying $500 gifts for this person. I still wouldn’t give them Nathan Myhrvold’s new book because of his behaviors and statements around patents. It’s not that I’m trying to dictate morality or taste for the people closest to me, it’s just that I know my own biases make it impossible for me to figure out if a gift I wouldn’t want for myself is something the person I’m buying a gift for would want to own. In other words, my not wanting something means I can’t be sure it meets the first criterion.

3. A gift should be a luxury for its recipient. There are plenty of things people want but won’t buy for themselves. Sometimes it’s something they simply can’t afford, but sometimes it’s something they can afford but have persuaded themselves they shouldn’t buy because it seems extravagant. The key is to find something in the latter category. Some of my favorites lately: good wine; specially imported olive oil; finishing salt; high quality socks. For some, newly issued hardback books fit into this category: we’ll wait our turn to get them from the library, maybe buy them as ebooks, or just wait for the paperback or until we find one used. I know that’s how I am, at least for the most part. It feels decadent to purchase a brand new book by a favorite author, one that’s printed on paper and can be mine forever.

4. A gift should fit comfortably within your budget. No one wants you to overspend. Maybe in a perfect world a $40 bottle of champagne or a $30 new release would make the perfect holiday gift. But a lot of us don’t have the scratch to go around buying $40 bottles of champagne or $30 hardbacks for everyone on our gift lists. In this instance, even for those people in your life who seem to have everything, a thoughtful donation makes a wonderful gift. You don’t have to tell them how much you’ve given. And, so long as it meets all of the other criteria, they’ll love it.

5. Experiences are preferable to objects. Most people have more stuff than they need or want. Ask yourself: is this something they’ll use all the time, or at least turn to in moments of crisis? If not, maybe you can give them an experience rather than an object. Personally, I include reading in the experience category more than the object category since most of us have developed the ability to find a good home for our books (objects) once we’ve read (experienced) them, whether it’s on our own shelves or others’. Which is why I love to give and receive books as gifts, and why I recommend breaking ties completely with any non-readers in your life. I’m kidding, mostly. As long as they like socks, olive oil, salt, or wine they can’t be all bad.

A few recommendations:


Ugh! I hate buying people books. I used to be an avid buyer of books, demonstrated by four full IKEA BILLY bookcases (before they became “thing”-cases). However, since becoming a librarian and having a kid, I buy far fewer books and rely on libraries to provide my family with reading materials. We have two great public libraries where I live – the Austin Public Library and our very own Wells Branch Community Library – both of which have met our reading needs very nicely. We make one or two trips to the library each week for story time and to pick up some new books.

More than anything, I want the people I buy for to use their local libraries to find new and interesting things to read. As a result, I’ve purchased a lot of book reading accessories along with doing some “research” as a gift. For example, I’ve bought my wife multiple book reading lights (that will clamp to a book or her Kindle) and one of those contraptions that holds a book open for you, which came in handy when she was suffering from mommy thumb.

For my dad, who has always been into underground comics, I’ve purchased materials to make his own comics, as well as found him articles and commentary on R. Crumb from academia. I like to think it provided a new perspective on a topic he’s always been obsessed with.

One year, when I worked at the University of Michigan’s Graduate Library, I made the reference staff there custom book plates on hand-made paper that featured scenes from in and around the library. I tied them up with a glue stick and a little bow.

But an actual book? There’s too much individual choice to select a title for someone else. I am too finicky a reader to presume I could pick something that someone else was sure to like that they couldn’t get for free at their local library.

(Although I’ll second Brett’s recommendation of Born to Run, especially for athletes and runners.)


See, I have this resentment with systems that aren’t open or those that won’t play nice with others. My phone is a first-generation Droid and my traveling computer is an ancient (three years old) Asus eeePC 900, whose linux-based operating system, Xandros, was so frustrating and ridiculously hard to update that I gave up and started over by installing Ubuntu. I refuse to get an iPhone or iPad (I’m still so confused as to who thought this was a good name for a tablet computer) and am loathe to engage in the i-ification of everything. (But I do love my still functioning classic click wheel iPod.)

Maybe it’s my stubborn idealism about open interoperable technology, but if I had the resources I’d give everyone I know a Nook Tablet – and not just because I really want one. I’d do it because the Nook Tablet is the ultimate in playing nice. It reads almost any format of e-book publication – or any other kind of file, for that matter – which is far better than the Kindle will do. I’d do it because I want there to be a major competitor to the Kindle and Amazon. I’d do it because the Nook is more in line with the interoperability standards I’d want in my devices.

And of course there are a few books I’d have pre-loaded on these Nooks. I’d give three:

  • Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks – because as the title indicates, it’s for everybody!
  • Cookwise by Shirley Corriher – because it’s a basic for the kitchen, and I love to read the hows and whys behind my meals.
  • The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak – I got this for $3 from a vendor at ALA Annual for an airplane read on the way home from NOLA. It was by far the best novel I’ve read in years, and the fact that it was published by the not-for-profit Bellevue Literary Press doesn’t hurt.


Like some of my colleagues here, I don’t often give books as gifts unless they are specifically requested. And that is for the reason that most of my family, friends and colleagues are resourceful library users. Nevertheless, my top picks are…

  • The Best Recipe (or The New Best Recipe) – this is an ever-evolving compilation of well-vetted recipes by the folks who run Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen. This book disseminates the best approach to common recipes (e.g., banana bread, pizza dough) based on a series of tests conducted by professional chefs who run experiments on each recipe. Think of it like a Consumer Reports for recipes.
  • Flip Flop Fly Ball (by Craig Robinson) – this is a book that I secretly lust after and I am not at all a baseball fan. This is a superb reference for example after example of beautiful ways to make a compelling point with data, in this case sports stats.
  • The Plant-Book (by David Mabberley) – this book is THE essential reference book for people who like to think about plants. It’s equally as appropriate for a hard-core botanist as it is for a backyard gardener.


I seem to be in the minority amongst my Lead Pipe colleagues and am what some might call a book-pusher. I routinely gift books for holidays and birthdays, and have also been known to randomly distribute paperbacks throughout the year based on gut reaction. Often, my gifts are secondhand books, collected from thrift shops, library book sales, church rummage sales or straight from my own shelves.

Subject content varies based on the individual and I have a variety of strategies for matching a book to its reader. One is to poach ideas from curated lists. There are hundreds of best book lists that are compiled each year from both mainstream and independent groups. I have also found success in tapping the network of my peers, including browsing people’s public-facing Amazon Wish Lists and Library Thing reviews. Another strategy is to ask librarian friends and coworkers for recommendations. Or, I just buy another copy (or give away my copy) of a book I have read and loved, willing to chance that my friend or loved one will enjoy it as well.

This holiday season, I gifted books to each of my three brothers, including The Hunger Games series, a new official Scrabble dictionary, a compilation of canoe games, Philip K. Dick’s Valis, and The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg by Robert P. Crease. I love receiving books as gifts, although my to-read pile towers dangerously at the point of collapse. Being able to look at my shelves and recall where a certain book came from makes me happy. It contributes to my idea of a personal library – one compiled by those who know me the best and carefully curated and culled as the years pass.

To me, the gift of a book is never wasted. Although a certain amount of sentimental value is placed on volumes given, I never feel pressure to keep something I have read forever. If a gift book does not particularly resonate with me, I pass it along on its journey, donating it to a library, friend, or random person on Twitter. With e-books, this is more difficult due to closed and proprietary systems, one of many flaws in our existing structures. There is a place for the circulation and sharing of books outside of a library, with the public and personal coexisting serendipitously, sustaining one another.

4 Responses

  1. Nice link to Thinking, Fast and Slow. Grant got that for Christmas which is very convenient as it means I can steal it for my flight to Midwinter.

  2. OK, now that I’ve read the rest of your post (what? Kahneman’s so exciting one must comment instantly!) I have to admit there is at least one more very nice link in there. Also I must second the recommendation of Better, which I adored (and raise you “everything Gawande has ever written or will ever write”, starting with binging on his New Yorker essays: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/bios/atul_gawande/search?contributorName=atul%20gawande ).

    Clearly I will have to read Born to Run, as your description of who would like it might as well have a huge blinking sign with my name on it.

    And to recommend a few more — here are books I read through the library, then promptly looked for excuses to give someone else so I could generate some royalties for the author: Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (best book I read in 2010) and NK Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy (2/3 published thus far iirc). (These are for people who like speculative fiction, which as far as I’m concerned OUGHT to be everybody.)