A book isn’t one-size-fits-all; it’s nearer Cinderella’s slipper, just right for a certain, particular reader. The book I’ve given to others probably more than all others is Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America” — a masterpiece, surely. I try to think about what the recipient might like to read or think about, but when I give a book as a gift, I’m most often doing so because it’s a book I love. Thus, a selfless act is revealed to be almost selfish, though I have trouble imagining a reader who didn’t fall in love with Moore’s stories.
Two books that I’m always gifting are Nicola Yoon’s “The Sun Is Also a Star” and Gengoroh Tagame’s “My Brother’s Husband” — they’re both such generous, big-hearted works, with a warmth that feels rare and singular. I’m so grateful for them, especially now, and I try to spread that gratitude around.
In a world that has felt more than a little shabby, I find I’m drawn to books that are both brilliant and well-made this year. Louise Erdrich is my favorite author and her most recent novel, “The Night Watchman,” is my favorite Erdrich book. It’s rich, deep, complex, loving, human and humane. It will remind us of who we are capable of being.
Christmas calls for a special kind of elemental book that both refreshes our end-of-the-year spirits and brings us closer to the pure reading pleasures of our childhood, and I cannot think of a better book for these times than Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea” series. It’s limiting to label this book as just for fantasy readers; yes, there’s plenty of magic and world-building, but at its core, it’s a story of overcoming bigotry, prejudice, hatred and finding empathy and hope in every dark crevice.
Matt Haig, author, most recently, of “The Midnight Library”
One of the joys of reading a good book is closing it and thinking who you could give it to. I just read Luc Ferry’s “A Brief History of Thought,” which was a blockbuster in France and is the most succinct and accessible overview of philosophy I have come across, and perfect for anyone who wants to dip their toe into the waters of philosophy without drowning in intimidating prose. “Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott, is my go-to gift or recommendation for anyone interested in writing, though it is as much a treatise on life as it is a creative-writing primer. Also a gift for anyone going through a rocky time: “When Things Fall Apart,” by Buddhist teacher Pema Chödron, is brilliant and really helped me accept uncertainty in life. Oh, and “Winnie-the-Pooh” for anyone’s actual or inner child.
This year, I’m giving everybody a copy of Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “World of Wonders,” from Milkweed Editions. It’s a perfect holiday gift — it’s a beautifully designed and illustrated book of essays about the joy and astonishment and love of the natural world, which seems like something everyone could use right now. Nezhukumatathil is a poet, and you can tell even in this nonfiction book as she writes of her life through the prism of the animals and plants she’s encountered; it’s lyrical and surprising and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t love it as a gift, which is why I’m buying it in bulk.
I love James Thurber’s unexpected surreal humor, and it amazes me that so few people enjoy his work today. It was a childhood favorite of mine and still makes me laugh out loud.
Janet Evanovich, author, most recently, of “Fortune and Glory: A Stephanie Plum Novel”
I’m a cookbook junkie. I love to read about food and the culture surrounding it. This year, I’m gifting an old favorite and a new favorite. The old favorite is “The Tuscan Sun Cookbook,” by Frances and Edward Mayes. The photographs are wonderful, and the philosophy is worth taking to heart. My new favorite for 2020 is “Heroes’ Feast,” the official “Dungeons & Dragons” cookbook by Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson and Michael Witwer. I love this book just for the fun of it. It’s beautifully illustrated, and as an added benefit, the recipes are actually doable.
Danielle Evans, author of “The Office of Historical Corrections” and “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self”
I tend to think a lot about the right specific book for each reader — in normal times, spending nearly a full day in a bookstore searching for the best gift for everyone on my list is an annual pleasure. The books I end up gifting to more than one person tend to be anthologies and collected works. My favorite repeat gifts are “Best American Short Stories” and “The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton.” This year in particular, I will probably be gifting some of the books that have helped me find a map through grief: Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s “Seeing the Body,” Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” and Edward P. Jones’s “The Known World.”
I highly recommend the picture book “I Am Every Good Thing,” written by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. James. This story is a love letter to Black boys. It is a celebration, a declaration and an affirmation. I once heard author Jacqueline Woodson say that when it comes to storytelling, specificity is the key to universality. When I read this very specific story, I recognized my own brown boys and other children from marginalized communities who are so often told (without telling) their value in this world. This book joyfully and powerfully reframes the narrative.
Right now we all need books that take us into different worlds. So, as I’m picking presents, I’m going heavy on the alternative history. Marlon James’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is a ferocious, fearless novel where a dozen vivid narrators’ stories intertwine around a 1976 attack on Bob Marley. In “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street,” by Natasha Pulley, set in 1880s London, a mysterious watch appears on Thaniel Steepleton’s pillow and then saves him from a bomb blast; when he goes in search of its maker, reality starts to change around him. Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a moving, funny, lyrical noir novel set in a snippet of Alaska that’s become a temporary Jewish homeland. All of them have wonderful writing, unfettered imagination and characters who leap to life.
When I’m giving books as gifts, I like to give a book that either teaches the receiver something they need to learn or takes them on an incredible adventure. Sabaa Tahir’s “An Ember in the Ashes” series gives me the best of both. And with the final book, “A Sky Beyond the Storm,” coming out this December, this series is the perfect insightful and adventurous respite to take hold of someone’s imagination and give them a break from the hellish year that has been 2020.
For the holidays, I’m going to give multiple copies of “The Midnight Library,” by Matt Haig, and “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue,” by V.E. Schwab — the two best novels I read since the pandemic hit. The first one reignited the pilot light of hope inside me; the second completely absorbed me enough to make me forget the real world — both of which are excellent gifts for anyone you love this year.
Every year I say this will be the year that I finally get into writing a holiday letter. We tried once a few years back but abandoned the draft when it reached 10 pages, not including footnotes and citations. While I may not succeed at sending a letter about what happened in 2020 (publishing two books, screaming into the abyss, a sourdough non-starter, coveting my neighbor’s Peloton), I’ll definitely be gifting a perfect book about letters. Nancy Davis Kho’s “The Thank-You Project” is a beautiful look back at one person’s endeavor to write a letter to every person who influenced her life, and a wonderful inspiration for all of us who want to make sure that, no matter the distance or circumstance, those closest to us know they’re valued.
Andrew Child, author, most recently, of “The Sentinel: A Jack Reacher Novel”
As a writer of crime fiction, my go-to books to give as gifts are — surprise, surprise! — thrillers. My most frequent choice this year, for example, was “Blacktop Wasteland” by S.A. Cosby — a fresh take on urban noir with a unique emotional pitch and a truly memorable cast of characters, which I highly recommend. For the holidays, however, I like to change the tone and aim for something happier and more uplifting. With this in mind, the book I put under the tree most often is “The Eighty-Dollar Champion,” by Elizabeth Letts. It’s a true story, beautifully written, meticulously researched and brimming with the kind of grit, determination and triumph against all odds that is guaranteed to warm your heart.
This holiday season, I recommend Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Book of Longings.” This book took my breath away. I found myself closing it to breathe deeply, again and again. This book — on women’s longing and silencing and awakening — is a true and beautiful masterpiece.
Marissa Mullen, author of “That Cheese Plate Will Change Your Life”
As someone who’s transitioned from a career in music to cheese, I learn so much from the professionals in the field. Anne Saxelby is a legend in the cheese world. Her new book, “The New Rules of Cheese: A Freewheeling and Informative Guide,” is a great gift for any cheese fan. Not only does this book teach you about the history and fundamentals of cheesemaking, but it dives into the world of pairings, plating and recipes. It’s also the perfect size for a hostess gift, paired with a bottle of wine.
Angela Haupt is a freelance writer and full-time health editor in D.C.