Some people have a knack for match making. In my grandmother’s case, it was a talent for matching books to people. Every Christmas for as far back as I can remember, she’d give a book to each of her 22 grandchildren. She’d zero in on our passions, think hard about our reading habits and often choose volumes we’d never have imagined reading ourselves. Her rule was to pick books she thought might intrigue us, rather than books she thought we should read. She introduced me to The Borrowers, A Wrinkle in Time, Harriet the Spy, Sherlock Holmes and the first narrative I’d ever read about life as an enslaved African-American. Rarely did she miss the mark, making her present one of my favorites to open on Christmas morning.
I’ve carried on my grandmother’s tradition, giving books to my husband and two sons every Christmas, although maybe not with her exceptional eye and insight. For me, picking out the gift — sifting through a stack of possibilities in a quiet corner of a bookstore — is half the fun. But like just about everything else in 2020, shopping isn’t normal this year. The rush to buy presents is shaping up to be a mostly online experience, taking the pleasure and a good deal of the creativity out of the custom. That’s mostly true for book buying as well, leaving us with the prospect of scrolling through online book blurbs — mind-numbingly boring and enough to derail the even most beloved holiday tradition.
So this year, I’ve suspended any thoughts of happily wandering through my local bookshop and committed to buying online. To get me through it, I’ve opted for some elaborate present prepping. It starts with a cup of tea, or better yet, hot chocolate. Curled up in my favorite corner of the couch, a cozy throw tucked in at my feet, I formulate my buying plan.
I begin with a few lists I trust:
The Washington Post:
The New York Times:
These offer critics’ choice for the best fiction and nonfiction of the past year. It’s a good beginning, but I often find myself wanting something deeper, a viewpoint that considers the history of great books not just those trending over the past 12 months. With that in mind, a recent addition to my bookshelf is proving a wonderful resource: Ex Libris, 100 Books to Read and ReRead by Michiko Kakutani.
The Pulitzer-Prize winning literary critic shares 100 personal, thought-provoking essays about books that helped shape her life. The introduction is an eloquent ode to books and reading. “Why do we love books so much?” she asks. They are, she says, like time-machines that can transport us back to the past, bring us into the future and carry us to far parts of the globe and even more distant places in the universe.
“When I was a child, books were both an escape and a sanctuary,” Kakutani writes. “ The characters in some novels felt so real to me … that I worried they might leap out of the pages at night …”
I felt that too as a child, but longed for them to take the leap. When I first read Harriet the Spy, I wanted to be Harriet — daring, adventurous, a detective and a journalist in the making. I carried a notebook for months, keeping detailed accounts of “strange events” occurring in the neighborhood. If only Harriet had stepped from the pages of her book and asked me to join her gang!
Kakutani’s recommendations are wide-ranging and often surprising — a collection that runs the gamut from Muhammad Ali to T.S. Eliot to Vladimir Nabokov to Dr Seuss. There are favorite classics and timely new novels, memoirs and essential works in American history. It’s a fascinating compilation; a book to guide even the most prolific reader and help source the perfect present for the book lover on anyone’s list. Indeed, Ex Libris, richly illustrated by Dana Tanamachi, itself makes a wonderful gift to the bibliophile in your life.
Once inspired, it’s easy to get down to the business of buying a book quickly and efficiently, selecting and ordering within minutes of landing on an online bookseller’s website. And let me say here that at The Story Project we highly recommend buying through www.bookshop.org where 75% of the profits support local, independent book sellers. We’re fans of The Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT, where you can shop in person (masked) or online, and The Bennington Bookshop, the oldest independent bookstore in Vermont, open for in-person shopping (masked).
Happy reading and a very Merry Holiday Season to all!