Thursday, December 2, 2010

Great writer gifts day 4: The book basket

So here we are at day four of our series on holiday gifts for writers. Are you all feeling inspired? Ready to have your stocking stuffed?

(I’ll pause a moment so you perverts can stop snickering).

Lots of people have asked lately if there’s a single piece of advice I’d offer writers looking to improve their skills. It’s such an easy question it makes me jump up and down and squeal because I really like having an answer I’m 100% sure about:


Read everything you can get your hands on. Read fiction and nonfiction, read great books and mediocre books and even bad books. Read outside your genre, read inside your genre, read inside the belly of a whale, but whatever you do, READ.

Several years ago, I assembled what turned out to be a pretty good Mother’s Day gift. A few months before the big day, I bought a basket for each of the moms. I tossed in a few cozy items like a soft throw blanket and a mug. Then I sat down and made a list of at least ten books I thought each mom might enjoy. The lists weren’t the same for both, and they included a wide array of authors and genres.

I spent the next couple months combing bookstores, thrift stores, garage sales and eBay to collect the books. Then I made a bookmark for every single one. Each bookmark had a little information about why I picked that book, and why I thought she might enjoy it.

I’ll admit I probably went overboard. Two or three books would have been just as good, but you know what? We got years of mileage out of those baskets. The moms took their time working through the selections, picking up one of the books when they went on vacation or got tired of reading other things.

I hear regular blog commenter Geoffrey Cubbage groaning that I’m venturing into “giving-homework-as-gifts” territory (as he discussed this hilarious blog post about what NOT to give writers).

That’s why I’ll issue the caveat that if you’re going to assemble a book basket for a writing pal, you can’t be one of those annoying people with the incessant need to ask, “did you read it yet? Did you read it yet? What did you think?!”

But if you don’t care whether the recipient adores the books or even reads them at all, why not share some of your favorite reads with a fellow author? If nothing else, she'll have a new tool for smashing flies (you think I'm joking, but I swear I've killed at least two dozen with The Great Gatsby).

Do you like receiving books as gifts? Why or why not? Have you ever received a book you either loved dearly or detested so much you backed over it with the minivan? Please share.

Oh, and if you do give books as gifts, help the recipient out by flagging all the naughty parts. Nothing says I care like dog-eared smut.


LR said...

My friends are so kind and always give me celebrity memoirs like "Home" by Julie Andrews or David Lee Roth's "Crazy from the Heat."

Sarah W said...

Every December, my husband and I start leaving our Reading To-Do lists around so someone might casually glance through it on his or her way to the bookstore.

Both of us have tacitly agreed (in memory of the Great Book Return of 2003) not to buy reading material for ourselves until New Year's Day.

Mary said...

I always have the hardest time shopping for my parents. But this year, I'm doing the whole book basket thing! They're both avid readers but more of the library-type than book collectors (like me--I have walls of books and always want more!).

Some great ideas. And, yes, I did snicker at the stocking thing. Almost as much as when I typed "dong" instead of "doing". Ah, to be easily amused...

Linda G. said...

I love making and giving book baskets. Not sure if my selections ever get read--and really, who cares? The important thing is, I get to spend my gift-shopping time in book stores. Makes the whole holiday season MUCH more fun for ME*. ;)

*Am I really this selfish? No. Well, maybe. Okay, yes. But reading is GOOD for people. It expands their horizons. Mankind needs its horizons expanded, so actually I'm doing a beneficent thing, right?

Laura Maylene said...

I love receiving books as gifts -- of course, I usually give my husband a very long list of books I want, and then he shares it with other people, etc., so the books I end up with are ones I wanted in the first place.

I agree that gifting books can be tricky. Interestingly, a lot of people who aren't hard-core readers often seem to want to read but have no clue what books to select, so they don't bother. I try to pick out books that I think would be compelling for that person.

I don't know how successful I've been, though. My one good experience came from lending someone The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time -- that one was a hit.

CKHB said...

Book we received that needed to be run over with a car: "The Christmas Sweater" by Glenn Beck.

If someone here thinks it's a cute story? I DON'T CARE. WE WON'T READ IT. GLENN BECK. NO. NO NO NO NO NO NO NONONONONONONO. NO.

It was a well-intentioned gift for my daughter, who tells my husband that he looks "just like Jon Stewart!" every time he puts on a tie, so there's an insight into our political leanings.

Book I love: a friend got me an erotica short story collection as part of a series of gag gifts we gave each other over the years. It has a title that must be hidden from all guests, babysitters, housekeepers... and it's actually excellent. Joke's on him!

Laura Maylene said...

Also, I have a writer gift suggestion for you. I can't post about it on my blog in case a certain family member sees it (since the gift is for her!)

Some of us have people in our lives who, for various reasons ranging from age to vision problems, have a hard time reading. Yet these people might very much want to read the work you write. This year, I am going to record myself reading some of my stories/a novel excerpt and then edit it together and put it on a CD -- homemade audio book! Your grandmothers will love it.

abby mumford said...

i had actually planned to give a bunch of books to my little sister for christmas, but i was just going to pile them haphazardly in a box.

now, armed with the basket (and blanket and mug) idea, i think i can jazz up this gift a bit. well done, tawna! and thanks.

Matthew Rush said...

This is a great idea! And you can even add a sort of icing on the cake extra if you buy some debut author's novels too: you'll be supporting an industry you're trying to break into (or already have). Nothing wrong with a little extra good karma!

Summer said...

Absolutely! I always give my husband a list of books that I want for Christmas, and he dutifully buys them and usually adds in a few more. As much as he teases me about my smutty paranormal novels, he's got excellent taste in figuring out which ones I'd like to read. :)

Delia said...

Ten? With personalized bookmarks? Good gracious.

I love to give and receive books. I'm getting books for all my neices and nephews (with money in them, I'm not totally lame) and I have a few on my own list as well. Let's hope my husband actually looks at the list this year.

Danica Avet said...

Only one person has ever given me a book as a gift and I heart her so much *sniffs* My best friend ordered me the latest book (at the time) by JR Ward who is my hero. I nearly cried when I got it in the mail. Yes, it was that exciting.

As for giving books...I never really thought about it. Other than the BFF, no one else I know reads. Although now that I have so many writer friends, that has changed.

lora96 said...

Love love love it. Can I adopt you so you will make me a basket of books?

I'm 32 and i am prepared to let you call me "Mom" in public.

Just think it over.

I adore buying books as gifts..right now my 89yo grandma is reading an Alice Hoffman I gave her and she'll receive a Billie Letts for xmas.

My favorite gift my husband ever got me was a novel he picked out "because you liked Possession and the description reminded me of that." :)

Laina said...

I love love love love love getting books as gifts. We don't have a bookstore within 50 miles, so I don't get to buy many for myself, so really any book is a nice gift to get.

As for giving, I've given them as gifts, but not that often.

kd easley said...

I love to give books as gifts. It wouldn't be Christmas or Birthday around here without books. My DIL isn't much of a reader, but I've found a few things she enjoys and I always make sure she gets books too.

The best books I ever got as gifts? That's easy. Last birthday I got The Glass Castle, I'd read it before, but I'd borrowed it and it was definitely one I wanted on my shelf. The second one was Water for Elephants. What an amazing story and I would have never bought it for myself.

My mom was a really slow reader and our tastes were very similar, so if I bought her books for Christmas or birthdays I always read them before I wrapped them, so I didn't have to wait for her to finish. I can remember staying up one Christmas eve reading as fast as I could and finally wrapping her book at two-thirty in the morning. It had been a busy month and I was behind, but I managed to finish it in time to stick it under the tree.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

What a great idea! I'd love it if someone gave me a book basket for Christmas. Usually I just get Borders gift cards, but then I end up using the cards to buy anything chocolate-flavored at the cafe instead of books.

Mark Simpson said...

"Never look a gift book in the critiques." -sound advice from a wise man. (I actually just made that up, but that doesn't make it any less true. ha)

A while back Mom sent me a box of her favorites from a reading club she had joined. I glanced through them, shrugged,and it was at least a year later while dying for some material that I dug them out. The first was Alexandra Fuller's "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" --one of the best novels I've ever read.

I've since enjoyed them all. So even though a person might not be motivated to dive into gift-books immediately, if they read at all there will be a time when they're glad to have them.

And about kd's comment on The Glass Castle, if you liked that (and who wouldn't) you'd probably enjoy the follow-up prequel "Half Broke Horses"

Living in Arizona I found it particularly interesting, but with a teenage girl riding solo through the half-wild west from Albuquerque to Flagstaff its easy to like, particularly when you compare her to her daughter from "The Glass Castle".

Americans used to be a whole lot tougher, that's for sure.

(Didga read it yet, didga read it yet??? Whadya think???)

kd easley said...

Thanks, Mark.
It's now on my list.

Susan M. Baganz said...

I have a friend who has given me books that I hated! She didn't like it when I gave her my critiques because these books were pet favorites! Needless to say now I get a gift card to Amazon so I can pick and choose what I want (like that!). However I have had people give me books that have just blessed my heart and I've been grateful - whether it's a resource book or something else. I know I've given books as gifts and they've been well received. Need to do more of that! Loved the idea of spending months searching for the right books and hunting them down and writing the reasons WHY you are giving them - makes it very personal.

Mark Simpson said...

Couldn't resist making another comment on this.

I read CKHB's note on receiving "The Christmas Sweater" and it reminded me of when my sister (who was working in D.C. at the time) gave me a signed copy of John McCain's "Worth the Fighting For" long before the 2008 election.

I thought it was a neat little piece of history. (partly because he signed it: "To Mark Simpson, A Great American" --ha ha.. if he only knew.) But I had no real interest until the election three years later when I picked it up in pursuit of objectivity... and surprise surprise, for a lot of unexpected reasons it was actually a very entertaining and well-written read.

And if there's one thing I've learned about politics, its that the people you side with probably aren't as great as you would like to think they are, and the folks you don't probably aren't as bad... but I digress.

When the race heated up I naively offered it to a handful of liberal acquaintances, (as a musician and writer, most people I know would fit this description.) but they predictably declined, some quite vehemently.

(Once one was drunk enough to take up the offer but passed out instead, dumping his beer on it in the process.)

I also wouldn't have discovered one of my favorite musicians had that same sister not put his CD in my Christmas stocking. I still didn't listen to it for over a year of course, and what a fool that makes me.

Anyway, my point is that music and literature from friends is not only a very personal gift, but for me it also opened doors I might've otherwise never found. I didn't know many of my favorite books even existed until someone gave them to me.

"The Christmas Sweater" might suck serious balls--(probably does, actually) but many seem to have really enjoyed it. Who knows. Maybe its good, Beck's nutty politics notwithstanding. Michael Jackson in all likelihood molested nubile boys after all, but I still rock out to Thriller when it comes on. ha ha

cubbageg said...

Well, all right, it would be hard to argue with the sheer amount of caring that goes into a hand-assembled book basket with annotations of adoration. Or with dog-eared smut. Smut is always a "GOOD GIFT." Thank you for the link, Tawna; I hope your regulars found it entertaining.

Dr. Goose said...

It has taken me years to admit I am a nerd who happens to point his reading attention toward occupational interests.

I love books about case studies involving summaries of therapy sessions.

There. I said it. And at the risk of receiving a damning e-mail from you I don't like Fiction. But!!!!! I will read every word you publish because I love you in an uncreepy cousin kind of way.

Tawna Fenske said...

LR, I kinda want to read that David Lee Roth one!

Sarah, good idea with the lists!

Mary, I swear I end up typing "dong" more often than "doing." Sometimes I leave it that way just for fun.

Linda G, hey, I'm all about the selfish gift giving!

Laura, I love THE CURIOUS INCIDENT, too! Great book! And what a wonderful idea about the book on CD. What software do you use to do the recording onto CD?

CKHB, I love buying erotica at the used bookstore and watching the clerk's face as she rings it up :)

Abby, you score bonus points if you put packets of cocoa or tea in the mug :)

Matthew, excellent point about supporting debut authors! (and here's that $20 I promised)

Summer, a husband who knows his wife's taste in smut is a fine thing indeed.

Delia, yeah, ten was a bit much. If I had to do it again, I think I'd stick with four or five.

Danica, I've never read JR Ward, but will have to remedy that situation.

lora96, sure, I could use another mom! Will you buy me a pony?

Laina, do you buy books online much, or you prefer browsing the stores?

KD Easley, ooh, I loved GLASS CASTLE. Have been meaning to pick up her next book.

Neurotic workaholic, people always give my husband Barnes & Noble cards for Christmas, and since he's not much of a reader, I often inherit them.

Mark, I'll have to check out that Alexandra Fuller book, thanks for the suggestion!

Susan, you're right, I think the personalization is what makes it special. I'll make sure to do it that way again the next time I give a book.

Mark, amen to everything you just said. Some of my most favorite books are ones I was certain I'd hate at the outset.

cubbageg, I'm sure the readers all enjoyed your butt photo as a bonus today.

Dr. Goose, you are a nerd, but we love you anyway :)

Thanks for reading, guys!


Christina Auret said...

I love giving books as presents, but I have learned not to ever bother recommending books to friends.

Claire Dawn said...

I think you should only give books to ppl you really know well. About 10 years ago I gave my bff a book by an author she'd never read. To this day, she reads every book by that author.

I would never assume that she'd like the books I do. And vice versa.