Books as Gifts and Accompanying Worries

I love to give books as gifts. I love to RECEIVE books as gifts. But oh boy is it tricky when you receive a book and… you have a hard time getting through it.

My husband is a voracious reader. He is constantly reading about books, and finding new books to check out from the library, to listen to on his way to and from work, and to buy for our ever-growing collection.

So when he chooses a book for me, I WANT to read it. And I want to LOVE it.

Lately, I’ve had really bad luck when it comes to books he’s chosen for me. And it makes me feel awful. What’s worse than researching and finding The Perfect Book for someone you care about… and then it turns out s/he doesn’t like it?

The Orphan Master’s SonLeaving the Atocha StationThe Boy in the SuitcaseMiss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children… These are just a handful of the loving gifts from my husband that I recall trying and failing to get through in the past year.

Right now, I am struggling with Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s a book I definitely wanted, so I feel less bad than if my husband chose it for me himself. But he surprised me by buying it the day it was available in bookstores. And yet, I am having a hard time slogging through.



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My father-in-law got me How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster because he’d read it and thought I’d like to look at it through the lens of a writer – seeing all the patterns that appear in literature through the ages. And I really enjoy it! It’s quick and easy to read, and a day or so after he’d given it to me, I’d read through half of it. But… then I got diverted by life or writing or something else… And I haven’t gotten back to it. For one thing, I have so little time to read, and I find that I am devoting my time to fiction these days. But oh, the guilt!



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My mentor – and dear friend – has also taken to sending me books. He sent me All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr earlier this summer, and it is hands down the best book I’ve read all year. I think it might be near the top of my list of Best Books I’ve Ever Read. The language is so evocative and beautifully crafted, and the story itself is heartbreaking and beautiful. The characters were believable and lovable and the way the story unfolded – the way time wound itself forwards and backwards – made it impossible to put down.



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But he has since sent me two new books, and I am already worrying about the potential for disappointing him with my reaction to each. One – Mister Monkey by Francine Prose – is already in my rotation of current books. I am really enjoying it, although I wouldn’t say I love it, or that I even like it. Which is not to denigrate the book at all! It’s making me think, both about the subjects it raised (things like casual sexual assault, having to compromise as a writer in order to achieve the fame you desire, relationships and first impressions, seeing an event from multiple viewpoints and the worrying difference in perspective that can provide, organizing several disparate stories around one primary locus and why a writer might choose to do that, and much more – and I’m only half done with it!) I will try to write out more coherent thoughts once I’m finished.



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The other is Napoleon’s Last Island by Thomas Keneally, and I am especially worried about this one. It’s ostensibly historical fiction, a genre that I have next to no interest in. But of course I want to read it! And I want to love it!



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Herein lies the difficulty of getting books as gifts: moreso than with other gifts, I think, it feels important to really LOVE them.

If you buy me a sweater and I don’t care for it, I can still wear it when we meet for coffee. I can still thank you effusively for your thoughtfulness, and then we can both move on, you feeling good about giving the gift, me feeling good that I have conveyed my gratitude appropriately.

But with a book! It’s not as though you get someone a book and then clap your hands and move on. Oh no. You likely want to know how it was! Especially if you have already read it, and love it yourself, and feel that it would be particularly apt for your gift recipient.

So if I don’t like the book you have chosen for me? Well, I suppose I can say that it was a quick read or the plot was captivating or the characters were quirky and interestingly drawn. But what if I cannot finish it? That is the big thing. Life is much too short – and there are far too many books – to waste time on a book you don’t enjoy! And my reading style is such that if I am not into a book, I simply fall asleep. So it could take me FOREVER to get through a book I don’t like.

I’m not going to lie to you, saying that I have finished a book when I haven’t.

It’s not even like a bottle of wine, where I might take a sip and find that it’s corked and have to pour it down the drain. I could still tell you that we opened it last night and paired it with our pork tenderloin and wow, it was such a wonderful, thoughtful gift – thank you again!

It’s a book, and you might want to know – justifiably – what I liked about it. And if you have read it too? You will want to DISCUSS it!

This all makes it sound like I don’t ever want to receive another book as a gift again. Which is not true. Not true at all. Books are among my favorite types of gifts. I am just lamenting the peculiar difficulty that results when you don’t like a book you’ve been gifted.

So. Fingers crossed that I absolutely fall in love with Napoleon’s Last Island.

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