Books make perfect presents – but only if they hit the right spot. I remember my youngest son’s face falling when he unwrapped a fat Harry Potter that his brother had enthusiastically queued to buy at midnight. He thought the book would be too difficult for him. We all saw his disappointment as well as the disappointment of the brother who gave it to him. Disaster all round.
Books can offer the ideal, not too expensive, quick-fix answer to most Christmas problems but matching a book to a person can be as difficult as finding the right piece of jewellery. Reading taste is so personal. So, how to avoid mistakes?
Novels are the hardest gifts to get right, although few avid readers will turn their nose up at a new hardback novel by an author they love but might not buy themselves. Otherwise, however much you may long to press your favourite novel of the year on all and sundry, there’s no guarantee they’ll enjoy it or that they haven’t already read it. The more organised of my family have Christmas wishlists that save everyone time and guesswork. Surreptitious espionage work can pay dividends too, checking bookshelves, asking others who might be in the know or bringing a conversation round to a book or a novelist to test the water. If all else fails, I trust my own instincts and choose something that has bypassed the bestseller lists but which I have loved.
A safer bet might be non-fiction. Cookery books can be themed to a recent holiday, someone’s favourite cuisine, tied in with a TV show or just be riding high in the bestseller list. But surely it’s more satisfying to dig deeper, to think about your dad’s (let’s say) interests or if there’s a particular book or writer he loves. There may be other books by the same author, or in the same subject area. A biography or autobiography might illuminate a world he’s interested in. Lavishly illustrated coffee table books may accompany a favourite TV show or subject with which he’s currently fixated.
The internet is made for research. Happy hours can be whiled away following up leads and getting ideas. Bestseller lists may come up trumps, or the many Christmas round-ups in the press. Fellow book club members often have recommendations that turn out to be just the thing.
But for me, nothing beats a good bookshop with a bookseller who knows their stuff and can recommend or suggest. I use them unashamedly. Sometimes, other punters can listen in to my local bookseller and me in earnest discussion over what might suit a particular family member or friend. Browse, have a look at the physical object, feel the weight, turn the pages, see what’s actually inside. Think of the person you’re buying for and make your decision.
And if you’re still stuck – you can’t go wrong with a book token.
And the end of my son’s story? He did read the Harry Potter after all. It took him weeks to finish it compared to the day or two it took his friends. But he became a boy obsessed and went on to read the rest. So sometimes taking a risk when giving a book can pay off after all.
Fanny Blake is the author of House of Dreams (Orion) and the books editor at Woman & Home magazine.