In search of a distraction in the gloom of mid-April, I sorted through my bookshelves, where half-read prelims texts obscured teen fiction and discarded notebooks. Right at the back, alongside a One Direction annual hidden long ago, were my childhood picture books. Finally, I thought, something I can get rid of. But when the front page of My First Encyclopaedia fell open as I removed it, I was stopped in my tracks. Written in the front page, in my mum’s handwriting, was: ‘To Sophie, Happy Christmas 2005, Love Mummy and Daddy xxx,’, writing unchanged in the fifteen years that have since passed. While I see my mum’s handwriting every day, on shopping lists or the kitchen calendar, I was strangely moved to see it there, inscribed in a long-forgotten book.
I could trace a similar inscription, be it physical or emotional, on almost every book I pulled from this back shelf. The memory of blowing out candles on my sixth birthday, on the copy of Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, my favourite gift that year. One of the last memories of my grandad, on the Roald Dahl collection given to me by my grandparents. Maybe I am too sentimental, but I could only bring myself to throw out the annual and some dog-eared leaflets, the rest occupying a place too close to my heart.
Finding an inscription in a second-hand book has always startled me. Whenever I find a dedication scrawled inside a book’s front cover, or a letter tucked inside its pages, I wonder how the previous owner came to throw it away, given I myself can never bear to do so. In a second-hand copy of a book on food waste (Waste, by Tristram Stuart – more gripping than it sounds) I found this note. ‘For my darling on your Birthday! I am so proud of you for working so hard on your MSc…I love you with all my heart. Pauline xxx.’ Was Pauline the mother or partner of the book’s owner? The ‘all my heart’ implies an amorous relationship; had they since broken up? The note was dated 2015; how much longer did their relationship last?
In my local charity bookshop, the wall is decorated with similar notes, letters, and pictures that have fallen out of donated books. Seeing these heartfelt notes and family pictures has almost put me off giving books as gifts. What if the next time I go to the bookshop, I find my own handwriting (or worst of all, face) staring back at me when I open the fiction ‘pick of the day’?
A book is, after all, one of the more intimate presents you can give to someone, for in doing so, you end up revealing as much about yourself as you do about the person that you’re giving it to. Giving someone a book implies you think it’ll be good, and that they’ll find it interesting. If they find the book terribly written and boring, your good taste and your knowledge of their interests are quickly called into question. Finding your carefully selected gift in the charity shop bargain bin is therefore a greater insult than it might appear, however entitled your recipient is to do what they like with it.
When buying a book for the majority of my friends and family, I’ve learnt to play it safe. My tactic is usually as follows: get them another book by an author I know they like and who never fails to please. I make a note when they mention a book they enjoyed, then before the birthday give it a quick google, and the next William Boyd novel will drop through the letterbox, just in time for Grandad’s birthday. Ultimately, a gift is for the recipient’s enjoyment, so why not go with something they’re guaranteed to like? A riskier tactic is a quick perusal of Waterstones’s best-sellers section; whilst this might come up trumps, more likely your lucky recipient will receive copies of the same book from three different people.
You’re onto more dangerous territory when you give someone a book you yourself love. Whilst it can feel self-centred to give a personal favourite as a gift, there is something very intimate in the sharing of a much-loved book with a friend or loved one, that perhaps makes this the best gift of all. When someone lends me one of their favourite books, I find myself almost in conversation with them whilst I read it, trying to work out which bits they liked especially. My boyfriend recently gave me a book, telling me I would find one part especially funny. Reading it through, knowing he had read it before me, felt almost like he was there with me; when I got to the part, I knew at once. And I would be secretly upset if a recipient didn’t have a similar reaction to a book that I gave them, although I would want them to have their own opinion.
All in all, the gifting of a book becomes more complicated the more I think about it. With so much room for insult and personal revelation on both sides, there are times when it is tempting just to stick a book voucher in a card. Yet the risk is worth taking, in return for the reward of sharing such an intimate experience.