Michael Dirda on the 10 Commandments of Book Giving

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 7, 2008

Last week, I began to think seriously about presents. 'Tis the season, after all. When little, I used to lie on the faded blue davenport in my family's living room and daydream about what I'd like to unwrap on Christmas morning. A gleaming silver six-gun in a tooled black leather holster. A gigantic Erector Set, with battery-operated motors. The plastic model kit for a three-masted frigate or a double-fuselaged P-38 Lightning. Cool stuff, in other words. I could never quite fathom why Santa even bothered with socks and underwear and heavy winter clothes, usually in wool.

Of course, now that I'm -- sigh -- older, I still think a lot about presents. These days, though, I speculate on what to give rather than receive. Happily, I know from years of experience that books really do make the best holiday gifts -- plus, they're easy to wrap. Just follow these 10 holiday commandments:

1. Look beyond the obvious bestsellers. People who are interested in the latest hot novels and topical works of nonfiction already own them. Plus, to give a bestseller shows a lack of imagination. And you don't want that.

2. A classic is always welcome, especially in a pretty edition. If your intended giftee owns a much underlined Penguin Pride and Prejudice or never travels without a beat-up paperback of On the Road, you won't go wrong with a beautiful folio edition of the Jane Austen or the recent 50th-anniversary hardback of Jack Kerouac's classic.

3. If you know that your friend reads and rereads Keats's poetry, then give something related to Keats. It might be W. Jackson Bate's monumental biography, Hyder Rollins's edition of the letters, the recent study by Stanley Plumly (Posthumous Keats) or even a scholarly edition of the poetry.

4. Remember the books you love yourself. If you're crazy about the novels of Georgette Heyer, the stories of Laurie Colwin or such books as Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm and Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, it makes sense to share your passion with others. After all, the giving and receiving of presents is a kind of soul-exchange.

5. Do not scorn second-hand books. If your husband or son is fascinated by the naval operations during World War II, he'd be thrilled to possess a copy of Jane's Fighting Ships from the late 1930s, or the 1943 edition of The Bluejacket's Manual, or -- if you really want to splurge -- the multi-volume set of Samuel Eliot Morison's History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.

6. Be complementary. Note that's with an "e" not an "i." If your wife obsessively reads and rereads the dark psychological thrillers of Ruth Rendell -- and I'd be a little worried if this is the case -- then she's likely to enjoy the so-called "hard" novels (romans durs) of Georges Simenon or the unsettling suspense fiction of Patricia Highsmith.

7. Seek out books with a special association. Just last month I was browsing through the bargain tables outside Second Story Books near Dupont Circle and for a few bucks picked up The Short Stories of H.G. Wells, in worn but respectable condition. I already owned this edition, but on this particular copy's title page there was a dated inscription signed "H.G. Wells." (As all good collectors know: Carefully read any writing on endpapers and title pages.) What admirer of The Time Machine wouldn't be thrilled with such a present?

8. Expand the horizons of your friends and family. In college my girlfriend gave me a copy of T.S. Eliot's collected poems. Till then, I had thought of Eliot as dauntingly academic and just about impenetrable. But owning the book led me to read around in it, and before long I was memorizing long passages and looking for Eliot's Selected Essays. The gift changed my life.

9. Support the midlist. Many good novelists, most poets and nearly all scholars sell only a few thousand copies of their books, if they're lucky. Blockbuster titles and brand-name authors will always be with us, but the books that matter in the long run, the books that will truly speak to our very innermost being, can easily be overlooked. Browse through the fiction shelves. Pause at the poetry section. Buy a few of these books, and you'll be a patron of the arts.

10. Read book reviews, established literary blogs and best-of-the-year round-ups in magazines. Here, you can readily learn about all kinds of wonderful books, on every subject from public policy and current affairs to Taoist philosophy. Librarians and booksellers are great resources, too.

Over the years I've gone through all kinds of Christmas presents, and nearly all of them quickly broke or have been long forgotten. Not so the gift books, whether Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan and the Golden Lion, a paperback copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses or the Pléiade edition of Stendhal's Oeuvres Intimes. Given to me by relatives, teachers and friends, they helped to make the season bright -- and they also helped to make me who I am. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com. You can continue this conversation about holiday book giving by visiting "Dirda's Reading Room," an ongoing discussion group at washingtonpost.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company