December 2002

Jessa Crispin

slutlessons

How to buy books for other people

I’m hopeful every Christmas that I’ll get a stack of books to take home with me. And not just any old books. I give a list, but I’m always wishing someone will surprise me with a book I hadn’t thought to ask for but was truly what I wanted. My relatives tend to just go for the Barnes & Noble gift certificate, but it’s not the same. Here is how to pick the best book gift ever, and I hope my family is reading this in time for Christmas shopping.

1. Buy signed or rare editions of their favorite books.
Abebooks.com and Alibris.com are your friends. You can search for signed editions, out of print books, first editions, anything you’re looking for. Don’t, however, go to Ebay. The quality varies too much, you can’t guarantee the seller will ship in time for Christmas, and there is rarely anything up for auction that can’t be found – usually cheaper – at one of the two websites. If you have a really good used bookstore, you can try there as well. Sometimes they don’t even pay attention to what they have and you can walk out of there with a signed copy of Beautiful Losers for $6 like my friend did just the other day.

Also see if their favorite authors will be signing in your area before Christmas or any other gift-giving holiday. The best book gift I’ve ever given was a new Orson Scott Card book that I sent to a friend to have it signed for my father. She worked at a bookstore he was speaking at, and she managed to get it signed for me. The best part was my friend had forgotten my father’s first name but did remember that my last name was the name of the patron saint of shoemaking. Card signed it “To Sir Crispin: Your shoes are made for dancing. All the best, Orson Scott Card.” After I explained the strange inscription, my dad freaked.

2. Import books from the UK.
If they particularly like a British or Irish writer, check to see if the writer has any books in print in the UK that aren’t available here. There will usually be a few unless they’re a big name. Then pop on over to Amazon.co.uk and buy it direct. You may have to allow for a longer shipping time, but it will arrive pretty quickly.

3. Find recommendations from their favorite writers.
Read interviews with their favorite writers. There is usually a journalist who will ask them what they’re reading right now. If they give an enthusiastic response, consider buying that book. Also, if the author occasionally writes blurbs, find out whose covers their quotations are on. If they’re really into Neil Gaiman, then it’s easy. He mentions the books he’s reading on his website all the time. Salman Rushdie writes about his favorite literature in his new nonfiction collection, Step Across This Line. The gift may warrant an explanation when they open it, but they may appreciate the new blood in their collection.

4. Buy childhood favorites.
This usually works best with girls, but if you have a boy to buy for and he was once quite obsessed with the Hardy Boys, it could work. If you don’t know what they read as a child and you don’t want to ask them directly, call up their mom and dad. God knows they probably had to read it to them a thousand times or saw them carrying a beat-up copy around the house for a year.

Try to buy high quality copies; a paperback of Old Yeller isn’t going to cut it. Many classics like The Little Prince, Watership Down, and the Alice books have several editions, including special prints. Hey, Chandler got into a girl’s pants with a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit on Friends. It might work for you. (Oh, the shame of referencing a sitcom...)

5. Create book gift baskets.
Find out what their favorite classic is and build a basket out of things from that book. For example, say they’re a bit obsessed with Ulysses. Go to abebooks.com, find a nice edition of the book and Anthony Burgess’s Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Everyday Reader, buy a six pack of Guinness or a bottle of Irish whiskey, a map of Dublin with Leopold’s route highlighted, or anything else you want to pull from the book. A good resource is the New York Library gift shop website. They have miscellaneous book and author related mugs, ties, shirts, whatever you can imagine.

Buy a copy of a book that was made into a movie and the DVD of the adaptation. Make sure the director didn’t slaughter it first. Hell, if they really like Hamlet you have about a dozen options.

Another option for the gift basket is to find a topic to build around. Are they big fans of New York City? There are hundreds of books to choose from: Poeta en Nueva York, Letty Fox, The New York Trilogy, etc. Throw in a DVD of Woody Allen’s Manhattan and a New York Library lion coffee mug for good measure and you’ve got yourself a basket.

6. Buy it through Bookslut.

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