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  • Writer's pictureJulia Hass

The Gift Guide For People Who Don’t Want Gifts – Part Two: Books

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

I’m going to start by saying this – you have every right to be mad at me. Here I was promising you so many holiday gift ideas, and then disappearing for two weeks after only telling you about a third of them. In my defense, I really would have rathered be writing a blog post, but instead I was spending pretty much all of my waking hours under mountains of Statistics homework and yelling about z-values. I, too, have suffered.

Anyway, the next set of suggestions is all Books. Glorious, glorious books for people like me who spent their entire life dreaming of doing this:

Or that someday we’d meet our true love, who we would know was our true love because they would give us a library like this:

Books are great gifts. For everyone. Even people who didn’t share my Disney-fueled dreams. Yes, you read that right, you can get books for people who don’t like to read.  Walk with me, would you?

First off, a housekeeping note –  all of the links to these books are through IndieBound, a fantastic site where your book orders are filled by small, independent, locally-owned bookstores. If you need a book fast, you can order from Amazon Prime and I won’t judge you because Lord knows I do it too, but if you have the time, I really strongly suggest getting up and going to your local book store. You have one. They’re probably amazing. You can even call them ahead to make sure they carry what you want. Even if they don’t, they probably have better suggestions than I do, because it is literally their job.

Another housekeeping note – this used to be much, much longer (like literally almost twice the number of books), but in the interest of finishing this and the last part BEFORE Christmas, well. Needs must. If you have specific book recommendation requests (or any gift guide requests, to be honest), let me know. I can go on and on and on and on and –

1. I came across Advanced Style, which is a coffee table book entirely made up of portraits of people who choose to live their twilight years dressing like they’re headed to a mix of the opera and Lollapalloza because screw it, they’re old and they want to, by complete accident browsing Amazon one day. I immediately ordered it for my best friend’s birthday because we have always promised to grow old and fabulous together, and perused it myself before giving it to her. It’s great. She loved it, I loved it, anyone who wants proof that being old does not preclude you from looking fabulous will love it. The men and women (mostly women) photographed in this book and in its sequel are strong, vibrant, fun, and full of life. They dress the way I wish not only I had the money to dress, but that I wish everyone dressed. They make every Pinterest outfit you’ve ever seen look dumb and bland. I love them all. I was already one of those people who was born excited to be a batty old lady, but now I am unspeakably excited.

2. One of the first things I thought of when I first was thinking up this list was the work of Liz Climo. You’ve probably seen her work around, and it is the definition of a crowd pleaser. Everyone finds it funny and charming including both people who are too young for most humor and people who don’t like humor that’s for people too young for adult humor. I bring The Little World of Liz Climo with me on every trip. I bring it whenever I go babysitting. My brother-in-law got this for me one Hanukkah, and then I wasn’t even allowed to read it because even though he’d read it in the store and giggled over it he had to read every single comic and giggle over it again. Then he had to pass it to both my brother and my sister and both my parents everyone giggled over it before me and it was my present. This is unheard of! No one steals presents from other people unless the present is that good.

But now that I have finally gotten to read it (and I’d read most of them before, but it’s nice to have them in book form), the comics? They’re that good.

3. I don’t celebrate Christmas unless “eating cookies” counts as celebrating, but truly what I would want for Christmas if I did celebrate it would be for, when people ask me what my favorite books are, and I say “The Princess Bride”, to not have everyone including professional librarians go “don’t you mean favorite movies?” Nope. No I don’t. It was a book first, and the book is better. (Though the movie is still one of my top five favorite movies, which tells you both how good the book is or how low my opinion of most movies is.)

For the seven of you who haven’t seen The Princess Bride, it’s basically a very humorous mildly adult fairy tale with lots of memorable quotable lines and asides. It’s a great time for everyone and if you are one of those seven people, you should go rent it immediately. Once you come back, you should read the book, which the movie was literally word-for-word adapted from, except for how the book has about double the story, asides, and quotable lines, which the movie had to cut in the interest of not being eight hours long.

Of course any edition of the book version of The Princess Bride is going to have the same words, but if you want to give a really excellent, illustrated, hardcover, heirloom-level gorgeous version to a true fan, go with this one. It’s a beauty.

4. If someone’s pregnant – particularly if they’re not very far along – this presents (hah! unintentional pun) a real problem during the holiday season. You of course want to get them a gift for this little one they’re very excited about expecting – nothing too big, just something small and thoughtful – but you have no idea what. (I have lots of ideas what to get someone  for a baby if they don’t have a registry or you’re poor or want to be creative or whatever, but that’s a whole other gift guide.) They probably haven’t had time to make a registry yet, they might not even know the gender yet (for people who care about gendered things), they have no idea what they want or need, they might already have kids and have a lot of the things but not know what additional things they need, and if they’re having multiples, hoo boy. It gets real complicated.

At nine and a half months old my nephew has a lot of clearly genius traits (like his unerring ability to know when you’re trying to get in the refrigerator covertly and without him noticing, at which point he always notices and crawls over at the speed of light to stick his head in it and proceed to pull everything out), but one of his most genius qualities is that he is a very discerning book critic – his requirements being that a book be something interesting enough to smack and also something he can throw when he’s done with it. He’s the first baby I’ve been around regularly and not just babysat for a single day a few times, but I’m told that my nephew has intuitively and brilliantly tapped into the psyche and desires of a generation. (Also, that every baby enjoys these things.)

Of course every baby loves the classics which is why they’re classics (Sandra Boynton is a particular favorite of his, though  parents-to-be may already have those), but my nephew’s absolute favorite books, category “don’t make noise so Aunt Julia isn’t tempted to throw them in the trash every time she watches him”, are ones with big, bold shapes, particularly Color Zoo by Lois Ehlert (bonus, it has cutout shapes which make for easy grabbing!) and Squares and Other Shapes by Josef Albers (the circles within squares page blows his mind every time – we were just doing squares within squares and circles within circles before!). The chances of a parent-to-be having these? Very small, they’re not very well known. The chances their baby-to-be will enjoy them? Very big, according to my in-house baby critic.

My in-house baby critic also cannot recommend strongly enough this cloth bookyou can pick up at Ikea, which is very light on things found in most books like “plot” or “characters” or even “words”, so calling it a “book” might be a stretch. But my sister and I saw it, shrugged, and threw it in the cart while we were out shopping one day, which honestly is how you end up buying most things that turn out to be a child’s favorite thing ever, as this of course did.

5. I’m a huge, huge history buff, but I’m very specifically a fan of little-known history that explains a whole lot. Talking to me can often be like unwittingly tuning in to an episode of Drunk History, except I don’t drink so I really have no excuse. If you get cornered by me and I start talking about the history of square dancing or a brief history on the intersection of Russian politics and hockey or, the grossest and greatest of all my obsessions, a history of hookworm in the American South, I’m very sorry for you and if you had anything planned within the next ninety minutes.

One of the things that I regaled anyone who would listen (ie: my parents) about this summer was Killers of the Flower Moon, which I heard author David Grann talk about on an episode of Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He was a phenomenal conversational storyteller, which a lot of authors surprisingly aren’t but always bodes really well for the authors who are. My parents weren’t home when I listened to it, and when they came home they found me sitting on the kitchen floor, muttering “oh my god, oh my god,” and staring at the pot of boiling water I was nominally there to monitor. They didn’t make the mistake of asking me why, though, because they’ve known me a while. They both got to hear it later when we were all trapped in the car together and they had no way to escape me.

I haven’t read the book because it’s reserved at my local library for approximately the next five years, even in digital copy, but just based on this interview it still gets my unreserved stamp of approval. This story features love, betrayal, America’s horrific historically treatment of the native population, the nascent beginnings of the FBI and a scrappy multi-racial team of embedded plainclothes investigators, family secrets, cover-ups… honestly, if it were fiction, I’d flag it as being too unrealistic that this much could happen in one story. It’s not a surprise it’s been on the best seller list for ages (a history on the best seller lists that isn’t one of Bill O’Reilly’s poorly researched bricks of crap! Amazing) and appears on every end-of-year book guide I’ve seen so far. It’s really that good.

6. I’m not going to tell you why the Harry Potter books are good. I’ve got stuff to do, you’ve got stuff to do, and this list is already getting really long. (Imagine how long it would be if I’d included all those other books I wanted to.) I will, however, tell you that there are now stunningly illustrated hardcover versions of the first three Harry Potter books (here’s the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Prisoner of Azkaban) with the other four on their way. I think you can probably take it from here.  (Editor's Note: A few things have happened since I wrote this in 2017 and I no longer recommend getting these or any other books by J.K. Rowling, both as a person who has many trans people in my life who are near and dear to me and as a person with functioning empathy. I suggest you do the same.)

7.  Are you one of those people who misses Michelle Obama and also that dude she was married to but I can never remember the name of? Statistically speaking, probably! Luckily for this majority of us, there’s a beautiful new photography book very aptly named Chasing Light by Amanda Lucidon, the person who was #blessed enough to follow Michelle Obama, first of her name, the most beautiful, amazing, perfectly arm muscle’d human (allegedly, I contend she is not human but rather the physical embodiment of freshly baked pot pie and choirs of angels singing) to ever take residence in the White House, and take her picture. It probably includes some pictures of the people she shared the White House with too.

If you want to read about that largely anonymous roommate she had who I hear was very nice and has probably also done some okay things with his life, there’s also a new book of very nice photographs of him, which most likely starts with “you don’t know who I am, but I’m the guy who photographed the dude who lived with Michelle Obama”.

That guy is so freaking lucky.

8. Nothing like a classic, am I right? Everyone’s got favorites. I of course love Jane Austen, but I also hold the distinction of being the only person in my junior year English class who liked (and I mean truly adored with every fiber of my melodramatic adolescent heart) Jane Eyre. My dad loves both Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea, because he really is that crusty a crusty dad stereotype. Whatever the classic you or your loved ones love, Penguin Classics has a truly wonderful line of hardcover classic books. Gift one of em! Gift em all! My personal recommendations without knowing anything about the potential recipient are either A Christmas Carol, which is a family holiday heirloom in the making if I ever saw one. My other is for if you really don’t know what to get a significant other, there’s The Sonnets And A Lover’s Complaint by William Shakespeare. Actually, maybe save that one for Valentine’s Day, add some chocolates on top, rake in the rewards.  But that’s just my suggestion.

If those are somehow not brightly colored and chintz-y for you or your recipient, there is a very cheerful and darling box set called Puffin In Bloom, which contains four classics for teenaged girls (or anyone, duh)  and are illustrated by the folks at Rifle Paper Co., who you may know better as “the company that designed about 85% of what you can find in a Paper Source” and therefore exactly as beautiful as you’re imagining.

Not Pictured – Audible Gift Card I have ADHD (in case that wasn’t stunningly obvious to you), which means that increasingly how I like to take my books in, as I get older and my ADHD gets worse, is through audio form, so I can do something with my hands while I “read”. And you know what? That’s fine. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that audiobooks aren’t a totally valid way to read. These are probably the same people who get upset that people read, gasp, romance novels, or, double gasp, on e-readers. Those people are stick-in-the-mud dinks, and should be sneered at and shoved to the gutters of society where they belong until they think about what they’re saying, which is dumb.

Now I’m a big patron of Overdrive, because it’s free, and free is my favorite price, and you can check out from your local library both e-books and audiobooks. Hooray! But Overdrive does come with some downfalls. For example, you have to return books after three weeks, there are limited copies so sometimes you have to wait for a really long time and if there’s a waiting line you can’t renew that, if you’re not living in an area whose local library has invested in Overdrive you might not have access to a whole lot through them (I live in Massachusetts, which has a state-wide library system which has invested heavily, so this is less of an issue for me),  and it relies on your library system thinking the rights to that book were worth purchasing, which means they very well might not have the digital book you want. So basically – all the exact same pitfalls of a library versus buying an actual copy of a book.

So what to do if that’s a problem for you or your recipient? Audible subscriptions! Audible is basically book store for audiobooks. But unlike a bookstore, if you start an audiobook and you’re not feeling it, Audible lets you return it and doesn’t charge you, which is a pretty sweet deal.

Also Not Pictured: Subscription To A Local or National Newspaper If I’m being totally honest with you guys, I don’t actually like books as much as I did when I was younger. I love the idea of books, but I’m so busy that while there are a ton of books I want to read, I make time to read or listen to about a dozen books a year on a really, really good year, not including books I’m reading for school because ugh, who counts those.  But I’m picky (oh, I am so picky about books), and while I want to have read more books, I don’t actually want to have to spend my time trying to sort through all these books I don’t like, which is most books written for people my age (ie: adults). What I really wish is that I had a power where I could lay my hand on a book and a magical suction noise sounds and I’ll have absorbed all its knowledge and words into my brain, but my brain is already very overworked already and probably couldn’t handle that additional and rapid influx of information, and also I’m not a member of the X-Men.

The information I do intake for fun (which is a lot, because I’m a nerd), is usually in shorter form than a book – documentaries, for example. Podcasts. And newspaper and magazine articles. I read so many articles. I should probably stop reading every article that strikes me as mildly interesting and start using that time towards reading books, and then I’d actually have time to read books, except articles are so temptingly short and easy to get through and a book seems like such a bigger investment. And you know what I hit all the time and then have to use ridiculous covert means on my phone to get around and read those articles? The paywall limit. Which I’d love to pay to get rid of, but I have even less money than I have time.

However if you DO have time and money and you know someone who is like me and reads a lot of articles, why not support the bedrock of democracy and get them something they’ll really like, which is unlimited access to articles? I’m not just talking big publications like The New York Times or Washington Post (though those are of course great), I’m also talking local papers, because most big deal stories start as local, and because local governance and goings-on affect people’s daily lives a lot more than stuff on the national level does, even though it doesn’t feel that way a lot of the time.

And also, honestly, how often do you get to say “yeah, you may have gotten Dad that nose hair trimmer he wants, but I got him the foundation of democratic ideals.” Hold that one over your siblings for years. You deserve it.

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