It is difficult to buy books as presents for other people. You mostly think about giving books to people who are regular readers – may not necessarily be voracious, or a “book lover” (I’ve never held up books and screamed enthusiasm for them the way I would if I were given a surprise paid holiday at work. Nothing wrong if you do though.), but generally someone you think might be interested in reading it. You may give them a book you have enjoyed yourself, or something along the lines of what they might like. Or something different for them, to make it a bit exciting for both of you. Gifting a book can’t really be “thoughtless”, unless it’s one you want to get rid of, or if it is the first one you laid your hands on the moment you entered the bookshop. That way, you risk gifting Fifty Shades of Grey to your grandmother, or a book of Lebanese recipes to your toddler.
Because these are repositories of thought, containing anything from Stoic philosophy to ‘How To Get What You Want Without Trying, Like, At All’, you have to bring in all your individual baggage knowledge-wise into your book shopping. Now, don’t tell me this isn’t you, and that you are really secure in what you know, and more importantly, what you don’t know. I, for one, mostly forget what I do know, and have faked my way out of many situations in which I didn’t know. But, you know, I have a certified education and all, and that means I’m supposed to know ALL about books. Especially because that is what my higher education degrees (yeah, yeah, you can go ahead and roll your eyes at that last ‘s’) are about. Which means I’m a book snob to most people without literature degrees, especially if they are regular readers.
Of course, if they so choose to see me that way, and I would myself be presumptuous in thinking that they might presumptuously believe me to be a know-it-all book-wise. But, the person I went book shopping for definitely thinks I am one. They’re themselves an extreme reader, much more likely to get their Goodreads book count up more than I do. They don’t have a literature degree themselves, and didn’t have many ‘texts’ prescribed to them in high school either. And they’ve often tried proving that they read more books than me, even though I’m supposed to be the book expert.
Now, some of you must be thinking, why are you getting this person a book, Amrita? Surely, being a good reader lies in not reading a certain amount of books, but making the most of whatever you read? Yeah, that is not how the internet works, but we’ll get to that stats-and-goals-driven reading some other time. The difference in this case is that I mainly read literary fiction, while this person reads genre fiction.
Oh, we’ve got ourselves into a sticky situation, haven’t we? At one point when this person was comparing my reading with theirs’, I did feel like telling them, “Yeah, but do you read Thomas Mann?” Anytime there’s a discussion about reading “important” books vs. “popular” books, we’re likely to be reduced to questions of intelligence and education. I don’t want to dig up all that again, trying to defend one against the other, because I find all that useless.
If you’ve read my blog post on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize, then you pretty much know my attitude to literature. As long as it comprises of words, or simply ideas, we’re good. Would I have felt differently if I hadn’t studied literature? Probably not. I would have known less about books, maybe read more genre fiction than I tend to do, which is not a deliberate choice, but simply based on exposure. I find all that conversation about what makes an important book immensely boring. And about what makes a popular book, and whether the two should overlap.
But, all these questions did come into play when I had to buy this person a book. I had little choice, I couldn’t afford something too expensive, and I didn’t want to get something they won’t use. A book, one hopes, will be of use even if it lies around for years. If not, they could just give it to someone else who might read it.
The Guardian has a section called Books that made me, in which writers talk about, among other prompts, a book they give as a gift. This year, if there has been one book I’ve wanted others to read, simply so we could talk about it, it has been Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. It’s a bit of a fat one, a bit of a love/hate one too, but one I found so deeply affecting that I want people I love to go through the scale of emotions that I went through.
But, I can’t get it for this person. It would be a statement, a “read this and become sophisticated” situation. Which I don’t, from the bottom of my heart, feel at all. But, that is how it would appear.
But, I did want to give a piece of myself. I did want to put some thought into what I got them. Even if they don’t read it.
I’ve seen the BBC Wallander series, based on the books by Swedish writer Henning Mankell, about a fictional police detective called Kurt Wallander. I love the atmospheric setting, the stories keep you at the edge of your seat and you really care for the world-weary policeman. I’ve read The Fifth Woman, which I enjoyed and so I decided to get the first book in the series as a gift. I haven’t read it, but I hope it is a good introduction, and enjoyable in itself. You couldn’t, and perhaps you shouldn’t, ask more from a book, could you?
What kind of books do you most go for? Does book snobbery affect you?