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December 11, 2013

Melanie Benjamin on Why Books Don’t Always Make the Best Gifts

Posted by emily

Melanie Benjamin is the author of the nationally bestselling ALICE I HAVE BEEN and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB. Her latest novel, THE AVIATOR’S WIFE (now available in paperback), pulls back the curtain on one of America’s most extraordinary and complicated couples: Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Although Melanie grew up in a family of avid readers, she well knows the perils of giving books as gifts to loved ones. Here, she shares stories of book-gifting gone wrong and some tips for getting it just right.

Books are gifts; I know this to be true. They are gifts of different worlds and ideas and feelings. They are gifts of glorious prose.

They are not, however, gifts I remember receiving as a child, come Christmas.

I have on my bookshelves precious few books given to me when I was small. Two ragged paperbacks from The Little House series. One hardbound copy of LITTLE WOMEN, now so old and loved that the cover is soft, like fabric. A similarly worn --- and loved --- hardcover of GONE WITH THE WIND. And that’s it.

Yet my childhood was filled with books; my mother was never without a book in her hand, and neither was I. But we didn’t have any bookstores where we lived, in the suburbs of Indianapolis, back in the 1960s and 1970s. We got our books from the library. So the idea of giving books as presents wasn’t one that I grew up with.

And maybe this is the reason that even today, my family is made up of reluctant book-givers, even if we are rabid book-readers. Oh, we’ve tried, over the years. Once the rise of the big box book store engulfed even Indianapolis, we dipped our toes into the book-giving waters, only to suffer serious setbacks. There were the years that my brother kept forgetting that he had given me the same book --- a book about Hollywood movies --- and so I got it again. And again. And again. There were the years that my mother kept inscribing her gift books “To Melanie, Christmas, 1993.”  Which was a lovely gesture, except for the fact that I already owned most of them, and couldn’t return the inscribed ones.

And that’s the dilemma, I think, with gifting books. For me, reading is an intensely personal choice. I’m willing to entertain suggestions, but I find it a bit presumptuous to be handed a gift-wrapped book. It’s like someone telling me what to eat, or how to style my hair. I choose what I read; only I know, deep down, what book will appeal to me. How dare anyone presume to know my inner thoughts and desires??

But I admit, my family is odd and prickly; we’re an ornery bunch. We still try, at Christmas, to give each other books, but we’ve learned to stick to the tried-and-true wish lists that are emailed out in late November.

But even so, there are still perils. A Christmas or two ago, the newest George R.R. Martin book was out. I knew my son was a huge "Game of Thrones" fan; I also knew he had limited funds and would never buy a hardcover book for himself. So I bought it for him, and sat back and watched him open it on Christmas Day, expecting tears of joy and gratitude.

Instead, he tried hard, but failed, to hide his disappointment.

“What?”  I asked, not hiding mine, either. “What’s wrong?  You haven’t read this, I know, and you love those books!”

“Yes, but this is a hardcover,” he explained, with the weary patience of one whose inner thoughts and desires had been presumed upon. “I own all the other books in paperback.  This won’t go. It’ll look out of place.”

At least I’d learned something from previous book-giving Christmas debacles; I hadn’t inscribed it. So I returned it for store credit, and he ecstatically bought the paperback when it came out. 

Booklovers we may be, but as I said, we are an odd bunch. But you can’t go wrong with a gift certificate to a favorite bookstore, and that is something that we all appreciate, ornery or not.