The 2019 Book Gift Guide (According to Me, a Professional Book Person)
Updated: Dec 23, 2019
The biggest change for me in 2019 (besides having a fancy new website, obviously) is that I'm a librarian now! I've been working as a circulation librarian at a local public library since August, and it's a very exciting upgrade to be doing the thing I am actually in school to be doing, working at a job that doesn't place me precariously close to minimum wage and treats me like a person. I also encounter books. Like, a lot of books. Some books that I might suggest buying people for gifts, even.
I could write about books, and good books, and books I think everyone should read and/or gift, for a very long time. (So much you may have sworn I've done it before.) I know its a little late, but you know, finals, the holidays, my birthday, etc, etc, yadda yadda yadda. I've linked to books on Indiebound as usual out of principle, but there's still plenty of time to get all of these on Megalomaniacal Corporation That Shall Not Be Named Prime for the holidays. There are a few books I'd really like to tell you about but I can't because the Venn Diagram of "people who are actually reading this" and "people who I buy gifts for" is probably pretty close to a circle, and I can't go spoiling their surprise. But I can tell you about these books, which do not have a home with anyone I know this year, and which may just have a home with someone you do.
For anyone who has ever loved dinosaurs, New York City, or both:
Bolivar by Sean Rubin
People assume a lot of things when you tell them you're a librarian. First, they assume libraries are a dying institution thanks to technology (nope, they're about the same as ever). Second, they assume all you do is read (if only). Third, they assume that you only read good books and also will know just by looking at a book even if you haven't read it if it's good.
The last one is kind of true, and here is the secret librarian trick to being able to pull it off: we check in and out so many books. We spend our days surrounded by books, seeing the people who they belong to, and what books tend to get checked out together. We see patron's faces when they return books, we see how they return the book, and if they part with it reluctantly or with prejudice. We hear when people are brimming with excitement over a book that they just can't wait to share and we hear when a book has disappointed them. And we process holds, and see what books have so inspired people to read that they weren't willing to leave to chance the idea that that book might not be on the shelf waiting for them. All of this adds up to us seeming omnipotent and like we have a weird, magical ability to know the contents of a book just by laying our hands on it and absorbing its words. (A power I very much wish I had in real life, but maybe they'll teach me in library grad school.) The truth is, we're just good at noticing patterns.
That being said, I'm always invested in developing any skill that makes people think I have magic psychic powers, so I've really thrown myself into this aspect of librarian-ing. I personally work on developing my powers by whenever I have five or ten minutes between patrons grabbing whatever book I've set aside from the cart that's looks both interesting and like it'll be a quick read and browsing it so I can, when someone asks me for recommendations, actually speak from experience instead of just sharing what's popular.
This book was so invitingly green I picked it up and brought it on a half hour break with me, and fell in instant, helpless love with it. It's a modern Dinotopia-esque graphic novel set in New York City, about a little girl who is convinced (and right!) that she lives in the apartment building next to the last remaining dinosaur, a gentle giant named Bolivar who just likes to get deli sandwiches and enjoys the anonymity that being in New York City, a city where no one really looks at each other, offers him. I was so charmed by this book I was filled with immense fondness for dinosaurs (which, excepting Dinotopia, I always found boring) and New York City (too loud and crowded and uncaring and I actively hate it). Anyone, of any age, who has loved any museum of natural history, will love this book. Also, people like me who haven't but are suckers for charming illustration probably will too.
For Anyone Who Has Ever Loved A Library
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
This book has been immensely popular at the library (unsurprisingly), second only to Educated in its lasting ability as a constant member of what I call the "heavy hitters" list, ie: a book that as soon as you check it in from one person, there's a 90% chance it's immediately going to go out to fill the request of another person. (In nonfiction, anyway, for fiction the two books that are on the heavy hitters list are Where the Crawdads Sing and The Dutch House. I can attest to the quality of neither because I haven't bothered to put my name on the months-long waiting list.) And it's with good reason: this book is a delight.
The way I describe The Library Book to patrons who request it and see me smile as soon as I take it off the shelf is that this book is like a decadent box of chocolates. Not only is it delightfully crafted to the touch, but the writing is dense. I spent weeks forging through only 70 pages of it before having to return it. The prose is simply too rich to consume all of in one sitting, and I say that having easily read the last few Harry Potter books in one six hour session each. It's a delight, but ironically, it's not a book I'd suggest checking out of the library because you really need to have time slowly and methodically work through every few pages and savor all the information in it, and there just isn't a renewal policy in the world generous enough to do so. It is a book that is a love letter to books, yes, but more than that it's a love letter to libraries, and to the specific feeling of quiet, unassuming welcome they exude, specifically to people who rarely feel welcome anywhere else.
For the person who loves fishing and also surprisingly useful trivia:
Cod by Mark Kurlansky
The only explanation I have for why this book has stuck in my head for so long is because I listened to it as an audiobook when I was concussed for nine months. Maybe it was the monotony of laying prone for the same span of time it takes to create human life that gave my brain nothing to do but fixate on a nonfiction book about fish.
Not that this book isn't exceptionally well-written, because it is. And I'm a huge fan of histories, particularly the genre I call "micro-histories", that focus on small and seemingly inconsequential things and then explore how much that one tiny thing shaped everything else around it. But... fish? I'm very much not a fish person. I don't even like to eat fish or see them at the aquarium. My brain is so bored by them it essentially classifies them as like one of those ficuses that sit in doctor's office waiting rooms, except it moves. And yet, take me to any social gathering in which facts are being bandied about and I will start regurgitating little facts from this like a broken Zoltar fortune teller machine.
It's no "tying cherry stems with your tongue" but it's still a valuable party trick. At very select parties. I mean, I would assume. It's weird, though, I don't get invited to all that many.
For those who love whimsy, nostalgia, and fairy tales:
Gnomes by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet
It's hard to fully describe the wonder and joy this book incites in people except to say that it's one of the few books I've ever found that the mere mention of it makes full-grown and normally serious human beings gasp in delight. I myself gasped in delight when I re-found this book in a used book store in Philadelphia a few years ago (I am not a normally serious person, but the point still stands), and when I was more recently describing it to a co-worker, she gasped, and then my other co-worker went "what book?" and when we told her, she gasped (they are only moderately serious people).
This book can be gifted to anyone above the age of five, given that they also have a part of themselves that has never really grown out of being five in the best of ways. It's a sweet, richly illustrated look into a fully realized imaginary world that has a way of wriggling between the ribs and past all our layers of common sense and settling in a timeless, nostalgic way in the heart. I love it immensely.
For the film buff:
Movies (And Other Things) by Shea Serrano
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I have not read this book and also that honestly, it's because I'm not really a fan of movies.
This isn't to say I don't think movies aren't by in large nice, more that to me they're fine. I like them, but I find it pretty hard to invest a lot of thought or emotional energy into something that is only, on average, 90 minutes long, which is a very, very short time to build up an entire universe and fully realized characters, when you get down to it. There are of course notable exceptions that prove the rule, but for the most part, movies are one of those things to me like antique cars or pistachios - I get that other people really like it, and I fully support their liking of it, but it's not something that speaks to me personally.
That being said, I feel comfortable giving this book a strong endorsement entirely based on the fact that it's written by Shea Serrano. In the further spirit of full disclosure, I did some illustrations for him once and while his editor ended up going with someone else, he was kind enough to compensate me generously for my time out of his own pocket. Ever since then I've made sure to follow him and read all his columns even though I never know anything about whatever it is he's writing about, because it's a rare and valuable person in this world who is successful and good at what they do and also treats freelancers like people. Shea's writing is as generous and funny and warm as he is, and he's one of the few people who I enjoy reading or listening to on podcasts even though they are, as far as I can tell, speaking in tongues. So I feel pretty comfortable in assuming that actually understanding what the hell Shea is talking about will him and his book even more enjoyable. This also all based on his opinions about Mexican food on Twitter, which I do understand and are good, if lacking in vegetables. I'm not sure what the movie equivalent to "vegetables" is, but you're free to tell me. It's a very limited offer, but since I don't know anything about anything, I will agree with whatever you say.
For the person who loves dogs, but also crying:
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
I love Mary Oliver's poetry, which is sensible and utilitarian and yet beautiful in its unflinching forthrightness. I love it particularly when it discusses non-romantic love - her love for a place, or for a sense of a higher power or purpose, or a thing. And in this book, a collection of Mary Oliver's poetry about dogs, Mary Oliver is at her very best. My dad got me this book years ago and I need to dig it back out of wherever it's been in the attic, where I put it so I would not get choked up every time I looked at my bookshelf.
If you would like a sample of how Mary Oliver so perfectly writes about dogs and love and life, here is one of my favorite poems of hers, which I think isn't in the book (again, it's hidden in the attic for my own emotional safety, so I can't check) but is about dogs:
If you were not in any way moved while reading that, congrats! You're a monster. Now get off my website. There's nothing for you here.
For the twenty-something learning to cook for themselves or the recently emboldened home chef:
The New Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen
You know how there's certain things about your childhood that you assume are just normal features of everyone's childhood and, subsequently, their lives? Like how I thought everyone grew up thinking every song in the entire world was contained in the pages of Rise Up Singing? Another thing about my childhood which apparently was not universal was Moosewood cookbooks, and also regularly having home-cooked dinners. So to sell Moosewood, it's a whole line of cookbooks, but the original (which is what I'm recommending) is the best. It's is good, honest, clean food. It's food that you can make no matter how bad you think you are at cooking. The recipes are simple. They use a lot of vegetables and other things you'll feel good about eating.They don't require a ton of work or cleanup. They taste good. You could probably get your kids to eat them. (Probably. I don't know your kids.) It's the kind of thing someone moving out from having either a parent or cafeteria provide all their meals can make without burning anything down and feel good about themselves. And food, when you get down to it, should make you feel good. Otherwise, what's the point?
Oh, and always at least double the suggested amount of garlic in these recipes for best results. Obviously.
For the fan of long walks in the woods:
Remarkable Trees by Christina Harrison and Tony Kirkham
In case it wasn't terribly clear to anyone who read that last recommendation and also has ever met me, I was raised by some real tree-lovin' hippies. One of them I am actually getting this book. He is, however, fine with me ruining the surprise because he is, like me, a minimalist when it comes to all of his possessions, including his books, and the real gift is that I got this out from the library for him and let him peruse and decide if he actually wanted me to buy this before I did. That's what we in the Thoughtful Gift Giving biz call "knowing your audience".
Part lovingly illustrated herbarium, part naturalist guide, part nonfiction novel, this book is good for every old hippie in your life. Side effects include having to hear about the Pando at least once. At least, it's only been once for me so far, but the hippie memory is short. He - I mean they - repeat themselves a lot. I'll probably have to hear about it again.
Still, a worthy price to pay.
For those bitten by the travel bug:
This book is a brick, but the most lovely brick that ever was. Brightly colored, bursting with information, and enormous, this book is everything you loved about reading National Geographics on the toilet as a kid (a universal experience, right? I'm not alone in this?). I didn't have nearly enough down time when this book got checked in to go through every page, because at no point in my day do I ever have a solid three hours of down time, but it's everything you'd imagine when hearing the phrase "National Geographic has a coffee table book that's just an atlas of all of America's National Parks". It -
Just kidding, why am I still talking? I said the words "National Geographic Atlas of National Parks". That's all the recommendation you should need.