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Bookish Diversions: Holiday Gift Ambivalence
Bah, Humbook!? Martial’s Saturnalia Gift Guide, Merry Jólabókaflóðið, Too Big to Read, More
¶ Bah, humbook!? I have mixed feelings about books as gifts. On the one hand, what could be better? On the other, what if the offered book is personally uninteresting? It happens. A lot. Reasons for enjoying a book can be highly individualized. My basic attitude is never give books as presents unless the person has indicated they’re interested in the author, the subject, or—best of all—the specific book.
I once made a fool of myself explaining this rubric to a friend. For whatever reason I’d been thinking of books as gifts and arrived at the formulation above. While visiting my friend, I mentioned my handy rule. The foolish part? He’d just given me a book. No surprise, he took it back. I still feel stupid about it.
¶ When it works. The gift of a book becomes a marvel when, despite every risk to the contrary, the title is perfectly chosen—somehow reflecting both the interests of the giver and those of the recipient. From the December 2, 1923, New York Times:
The giving of books as Christmas gifts is a matter that requires some thought, for though almost any book may be a suitable gift if given to the right person, it is precisely that “if“ that calls for discrimination on the part of the giver. . . . It is necessary to consider carefully the taste of the person who is to receive it and select something that he will read with pleasure and give an honored place among the treasures on his bookshelves.
If done right, the book represents a shared world between giver and recipient. “Such a gift,” says the Times, “expresses the true spirit of Christmas—not merely the giving of happiness as one gives alms to a beggar, but the sharing of it as with a friend.”
Of course, that’s leaving a lot to guesswork. The Times tried to close the gap by offering dozens of book suggestions for different tastes and inclinations.
¶ The mismatched Christmas gift has long bothered the bookish, and the Times might have been a little overly optimistic for some. Back in the 1920s one English publisher, Harold Raymond, feared consumers might desist from buying for “fear of giving an unsuitable book.” His evidence? Raymond surveyed friends the day after Christmas; out of 119 total gifts received, only three were books! That’s a vexing ratio for a publisher. Gift givers, he said, felt more confident offering “cigarettes, powder-puffs, and vases.” Why?
As Emma Smith explains, writing about the question in her book Portable Magic, “Book presents are freighted with an emotional or interpersonal burden greater than attached to other gifts.” Let’s say you love Tristram Shandy; that doesn’t mean I’ll survive the first ten pages. Same with The Hunger Games or any other literary product. A person can’t impose their interests or presume another’s.
That’s the problem Raymond addressed nearly a century ago, and we now live in the world created—in part—by his proposed solution.
Raymond suggested gift certificates for books. It seems obvious in retrospect—“Everything is obvious once you know the answer,” as Duncan Watts says—but it was a novelty at the time, requiring a three-page explanation in Publishers Weekly.
Instead of uncertain buyers opting for low-risk “gewgaws,” they could buy certificates for bookish friends and relatives. And “the present is in a measure earmarked,” he said, unlike cash or an all-purpose gift certificate. “Fred regards the book he acquires as Uncle John’s Christmas gift, and Uncle John is further satisfied in the thought that a postal order for the same amount would probably have been converted into chocolate or cigarettes.”
Everybody wins, including the publishers.
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¶ Why do I say holiday—and not Christmas—presents? Because the tradition precedes Christianity. Ancient Romans gave books as gifts during the December holiday of Saturnalia. To encourage the practice, in an example of protomarketing the first-century poet Martial produced a series of poems called The Apophoreta (Greek for gift). As Irene Vallejo details in her book Papyrus,
The poet had the brilliant idea of publishing catalogs of gift ideas in verse. . . . Martial dedicated an epigram to each product (culinary treats, books, cosmetics, hair dyes, clothing, lingerie, kitchen implements, decorative objects . . .), informing the reader of its materials, price, characteristics, or uses.
In all, Martial recommended fourteen books for gifts. A few of these were inexpensive volumes produced in the relatively new format of the codex—a book of pages, not a scroll.1 The format was economical not only in terms of cost but also space. Says Vallejo,
Several epigrams express wonder at the codex’s greater capacity, in implicit comparison with scrolls: “Virgil in parchment. How poor a parchment has contained the mighty Virgil!” “Titus Livius in parchment. The great Livy, squashed into scanty skins.” Martial remarked that the fifteen books—equivalent to fifteen scrolls—of Ovid’s Metamorphoses could fit into a single codex.
Despite his championing of the format, it didn’t take hold for years yet and then mostly thanks to ancient Christians who favored the format for reasons inherent to their use of books.
The thing that stands out for me with Martial’s gift-giving poems that they’re about the original problem raised by this post. How do you know what books to give? Martial’s advertisements aren’t much different than the New York Times’s 1923 gift guide—or the millions of similar lists that have been published since.
That’s a hack for individuals, too, of course. At the risk of diminishing the subsequent surprise, create your own list and share it far and wide.
¶ In Portable Magic, Emma Smith dedicates an entire chapter to books as gifts. In the English-speaking world the trend caught hold in the early nineteenth century. Anglo-German publisher Rudolph Ackermann pioneered the annual gift book, entitled Forget-Me-Not, in 1822. Over time the decorative hodgepodge became a genre of its own, copied by publishers on both sides of the Atlantic and expanded to include original writing by leading authors of the day: Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth, Dickens, Thackery, and others.
Just six years after its debut, Forget-Me-Not and its knockoffs sold 100,000 copies in the United Kingdom. George Eliot took a swipe at the lowbrow but ubiquitous genre in Middlemarch.
Abolitionists put the format to good use: fundraising for their cause. In 1853, abolitionists in Boston published Autographs for Freedom, collecting texts and signatures from luminaries such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Gift givers could signal their support for abolition and throw some money toward the cause at the same time, while recipients could align with the movement by reading the orations and poems of its leaders. You can read the text of the 1864 version online at Project Gutenberg and see some of the signatures.
¶ Despite Harold Raymond’s concerns, the giftiness of books has shaped the seasonal publishing schedule of bookmakers and retailers ever since the 1800s. While books release all year, the big releases typically come out in the fall, anticipating the Christmas buying season. And nowhere is that truer, curiously enough, than Iceland.
¶ Merry “Christmas book flood”! Whatever my ambivalence about bookish presents, Icelanders embrace the challenge. They annually participate in a holiday tradition called Jólabókaflóðið. NPR explains,
Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world, with five titles published for every 1,000 Icelanders. But what’s really unusual is the timing: Historically, a majority of books in Iceland are sold from late September to early November. It’s a national tradition, and it has a name: Jolabokaflod, or the “Christmas Book Flood.”
The tradition began with World War II when importing gifts proved difficult. “The restrictions on imported paper were more lenient than on other products,” says Hildur Knutsdottir, “so the book emerged as the Christmas present of choice. And Icelanders have honored the tradition ever since.”
¶ Alan Cornett, host of the Cultural Debris podcast, has successfully transplanted the Jolabokaflod tradition to Twitter with a random gift-exchange program. It’s already finished this season, alas; perhaps next year.
¶ While we’re talking about hit-or-miss gifts, why not try a book too big to read at all? If it weren’t for the 21,540-page count, the 4.5 x 7 inch trim would be pretty handy. Unfortunately, the spine is almost three feet across, making it a skosh troublesome to manage while sitting on a train or reading in the bath.
¶ What’s true of the 1923 Times article seems true for all time: Gifting books is an attempt to share what moves the heart and brings minds together. At its best, the exchange is an attempt at connection. That can be a tall order. But it’s one that reflects in a little way the hope of the season itself.
It’s also what motivates this whole project. The real gift has been your engagement here since beginning this enterprise in January. I had no idea what to expect when I started. But it’s been rewarding all along because of you. Thanks for reading!
¶ I’ll be back later this week with my top-9 books from the year. No. 8 will make the perfect gift . . . for somebody!
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