The Etiquette of Gifting Books

From The Guardian:

A man was walking in New York City when he passed a street vendor with books laid out on the pavement. In the $1 pile was a copy of the latest Philip Roth novel, which he’d loved. He picked it up, turned to the first page – to find a very loving inscription, written by himself, to his newly ex-girlfriend.

This is a true story, says rare book dealer and author Rick Gekoski, told to him by a good friend. “He said it was very embarrassing. I said: ‘Did you buy it?’ He said, ‘Of course. Then I threw it in the nearest wastepaper basket.’”

The tale provides excruciating evidence of the pitfalls of buying books as presents – thought to be less personal than jewellery, but far more telling of the giver (and what they think of the recipient) than anything that comes in a turquoise box from Tiffany. Not to mention infinitely more likely to be passed on.

Gekoski shared his friend’s story in support of his two rules on buying books for others. “The first is, always save a receipt” – the reason being, if a book has jumped into your mind as the perfect present for someone, it has doubtless occurred to someone else. When Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves was published in 2003, Gekoski recalls, “everybody got five copies for Christmas” – then tried to regift them to others who already had several copies themselves.

And the second rule? “Never write an inscription in a book, unless you’ve written it yourself.” (He is bemused by authors who do not like to give their own books, lest they be thought of as self-promoting.)

Gekoski suggests people restrict their sentiment to an enclosed card, in part to encourage people to own fewer things, and to extend the life of the book. “A third of everybody’s gifts end up in somebody else’s house, or in Oxfam. No matter how much you love the person, you’re basically defacing the book.”

It is possible that as a rare book dealer Gekoski has a particular bias on the matter. For those who buy secondhand books, past lives evoked by inherited personal inscriptions may be part of the appeal. And for those who give new books, writing in the inner leaves may be the final flourish that transforms them into presents, like an artist’s signature.

. . . .

One way to alleviate the influence of ego is to seek help from a knowledgeable (often independent) bookseller. Kelly remembers being recommended as a gift for his hard-to-buy-for father a few years ago a “lovely old hardback edition” of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell’s 1914 critique of capitalism and social inequality in Edwardian England – which is entertaining as well as edifying. “I’ve failed many times before to change his politics, but this actually worked,” says Kelly (who threw in a le Carré as a sweetener).

Link to the rest at The Guardian

3 thoughts on “The Etiquette of Gifting Books”

  1. The only books of my own which I have gifted to friends, or family have been to those people who were very supportive of the effort, or beta readers, etc. I guess I’m one of those authors who feels weird gifting my own books to friends; but then again I was raised to believe such activity constituted bragging – even if it really isnt.
    Of course Mom had to get copies of my very first books just so she had bragging rights to the other mothers (even though she has no desire to read the genre of stories I write).

    Heck, I still feel weird signing books for purchasers in stores or at events. I don’t think I’ll ever not feel weird doing that. What do I know?

  2. Do people have to use “gift” as a verb? Your word choice is your own, but have some consideration for the ones who feel something akin to scraping a raw wound when we hear it. I know, I know, the usage goes back to the 17th century. And I, unlike Nero Wolfe, permit “contact” as a verb in my house, but “gift” as a transitive verb is painful.

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