Saturday night was World Book Night. For those of you who missed it, the main event revolved around a huge giveaway of a million books. Well actually, 40,000 copies of 25 books. (I’ve written a piece about it for the Spectator Arts Blog, which you can read here.)
The title of this blog is a quotation from Nicola Morgan, who suggested a ‘complementary World Book Night‘, for which you’d buy just one book and give it away. Inside the book you’d write ‘Given in the spirit of World Book Night, March 5th 2011 and bought from [insert name of shop] – please enjoy and tell people about it.’
Well, World Book Night made me think about the art of giving away a book. It’s rather an important thing to think about as books are, as often as not, bought as a present for someone rather than for one’s own pleasurable consumption. I have even become a rather more accomplished wrapper-upper due to the vast number of books I’ve wrapped for customers in the shop.
The Guardian did a great piece about which books various writers like to give and receive as presents. Several seem to like giving away books of poetry – AS Byatt, Andrew Motion (funnily enough), David Nicholls, Jonathan Raban, Rose Tremain.
And book tokens are surprisingly divisive. PD James loves them – ‘I never give books, only book tokens, which I give frequently for birthdays and at Christmas to young and old members of my family.’ Anthony Horowitz has always hated them – ‘If there was anything I hated receiving as a child, it was a book token. I had a couple of namby-pamby aunts who always gave me book tokens, a present almost purposely designed to remind me how thick and illiterate I was.’
But, most importantly, several wise writerly souls realise that, as David Mitchell puts it, ‘Choosing the right gift-book is the art of the matchmaker – it must be tailored to the individual.’
As a bookseller, I’d like to think I’m quite good at choosing the right book for the right person. Recommending books to customers always involves asking what they like rather than forcing your favourite book of the moment on them. Although there was a rather sad instance of failure recently. A good customer of ours came in, going on and on about how much he liked Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace etc. When he asked me for a recommendation, instead of suggesting someone as obvious and perfect as Paul Auster, some spirit of perversity in me made me suggest Jane Gardam. Whoops. He read Old Filth, came back and said he’d give it 7 out of 10. ‘It’s a bit like meeting someone on a train,’ he said. ‘Quite interesting, but not very.’ On seeing my crestfallen expression, he remarked, palliatively, ‘I think I’ll give it to my mum though. I’m sure she’ll like it.’
I had hoped that he might find something remarkable and unusual in reading a book by an old eccentric English woman, rather than all this male American novelist stuff. But obviously not. Next time, I’ll suggest Paul Auster.
Point being, books are harder to give away than one might suppose. But here are three suggestions for next time you want to buy someone a book. And it’s not really too late to give it in the spirit of World Book Night, if you get your skates on.
1. Buy a book that’s really beautiful.
You could get a lovely edition of a classic, such as one of these particularly resplendent F Scott Fitzgeralds. Or one of those little Slightly Foxed books, which I think are best described as old-school. If something’s a limited edition (as with the Slightly Foxed) all the better. Of course, if money and time aren’t issues, then going for a first edition of a seminal work is always going to be a winner.
And there are also new beautiful books. They’re could be from small publishers or a beautiful art book. My favourite is still this Ravilious one (which I first wrote about here). The thing about art books is that people feel less pressured to sit down and read them cover to cover, they can leaf through them and put them out on display somewhere. Like a coffee table. They can be rather dear, though.
2. Buy a book that’s really new.
If you know what sort of books they love, or what sort of thing they’re interested in, then find out what’s really new and really good and buy them that. Chances are they won’t have got round to buying it for themselves yet. And there’s always a bit of a buzz about good new books that makes it feel rather exciting when you’re given one. The big new book of the moment is probably Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson, or for those more novelistically inclined, Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar.
3. Buy a book that you absolutely loved.
Now there is a caveat to this one. They may well not love the book as much as you did. This will be doubly upsetting for you because 1. You’ll think they’re ungrateful and 2. You’ll either think they’re stupid for not loving it, or else you might wonder if your taste isn’t as impeccable as you’d assumed.
I’d suggest only doing this for someone who’s rather special to you, because they’ll probably understand how much that book means to you so, most importantly, they’ll preserve your feelings and tell you they love it (even if they don’t), and also, even if they don’t love it, I expect they’ll still feel rather special to have been given something that meant something to you. Of course I can’t advise on this one, other than to try to pick something relatively obscure. If it’s not a new book, there’s a good chance they’ll already have it. And if it’s not a beautiful edition, then they probably don’t want another copy. It’s a very personal choice – and I’d love to know what you’d all give. My choice would most probably be A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam (which I’ve written about here.)
And the best book I’ve ever received as a present? That would be the set of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and Letters – first editions! – that my mum gave me for my twenty-first birthday. I was writing a dissertation on her and was absolutely obsessed. And, even in my rubbish photo, you can see that they’re perfectly beautiful.