Friday, December 18, 2009

A Book to Gift and Re-Gift, Time and Again

Several weeks ago, The New York Times posted three articles from its daily book critics--Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin, and Dwight Garner--with each writer’s picks for the top ten books of 2009. Generally, I tend to take little value in these lists, especially since popular book review pages write toward the middle audience: that wide readership that sometimes wants flaky love novels that possess all heart and not a minute of soulful plot, a detective or sci-fi/fantasy novel with ratcheting suspense yet cringe-worthy clichĂ© characters, the self-help book that promises to change millions while rehashing the same tired platitudes, or the ghost-written memoir of a politician or athlete or film star (or, in some cases, the memoir of somebody who has filled all of these rules). Certainly, some good literary works get on these lists--the list from the Times includes Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs and Jayne Anne Phillips's Lark and Termite--and even some of those “flaky” books are actually a lot of fun, some of those general audience nonfiction books interesting or catchy.

Janet Maslin--who wrote the brief note for the overview page describing the project--writes that none of the reviewers “has an objective view of the year’s best and most important books, but this is what we do have: favorites. They are books we have not only admired in the abstract but also enjoyed, recommended, and given to friends.” Though the reviewers’ lists provide a decent overview of the year in books--genre, nonfiction, literary fiction, biography, finance, etc.--I feel that, overall, these top tens aren’t constructed to urge us into buying any books. It’s mostly informative, although the Times has termed this a “holiday gift guide.”

But Maslin has found the heart of the matter; as a journalist involved with books, publishing, and the literary world, she has proposed the proper question in this time of year. Why buy somebody a book, when this is a difficult time of year for many poor and struggling families, when the country is in recession, when money is tight? And she gives us an answer: Because people might enjoy this book. That she emphasizes enjoying the book and then passing it along to friends, encouraging others to read--this shows us a great deal of the festive, December spirit, and it reminds us that books can be an important part of our communities.

Let me say this: There are few things that excite me as much as when a friend not only tells me I should read something but goes so far as to put the thing in my hands (physically or as a gift through snail-mail) and inform me that I must read this thing because she found it so incredibly enthralling, so entrancing, so beautiful. Whenever I read those books--one group that comes to mind, strangely, is my collection of Philip Pullman’s young adult series His Dark Materials--I come back to the sensation of, firstly, the book, but also this idea that my friend’s gift has given me something to share in return.

I can pass the book on to somebody else. Or I can read it again. Or I can call the friend on the phone to spend the time gushing over what the story means to us. The best books of 2009 are the ones that you have read this year that have compelled you to pass them on and to make your friends read. Stories that need to be shared--those are the best of 2009.

To see Janet Maslin’s piece about the 2009 NYTimes book lists, please visit

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post, PTH. I completely agree, and feel it also can be applied to strongly recommended books. Some of the books I have enjoyed the most have been gifts or those that come highly recommended (e.g. Kavalier and Clay, A Prayer for Owen Meany). It also establishes a sort of bond after the giftee reads and (hopefully) enjoys the book--almost like discovering and sharing a secret part of who you are.