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November 22, 2010

Giving Gifts the Rice Way: Christopher Rice on Buying Books for Your Loved Ones

Posted by carol
ChristopherRice.jpgChristopher Rice --- the 30-year-old author of four New York Times bestsellers and the recent, eerily-relevant thriller, THE MOONLIT EARTH --- makes the case for books this holiday season…and shares his thoughts on the right way to give them.

"Never buy someone a book as a Christmas present!" This was one of my mother's hard and fast rules for the Christmas season. As a young boy, I was a voracious gift-giver come holiday time, possessed as I was by the idea that all of my relatives couldn't wait to receive a present from someone who thought pudding should be considered an entrée.

"Merry Christmas, Aunt Nancy. Here's a smeared watercolor of a house that looks like an exploding sun! And those three malformed stick figures that look like they're melting to death in front of it? Why, that's you, Uncle Ronnie and the kids!"

One holiday season, my mother and I were browsing in a bookstore --- remember those? --- where I was searching for a gift that might be appropriate for my older cousin, Kim. She was an accomplished student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I, on the other hand, was eight years old and had a propensity for hyperventilating whenever someone mentioned the word shark. As I searched the racks, my hand fell on a copy of I HEARD THE OWL CALL MY NAME by Margaret Craven. It's a classic tale of reconciliation between Christian and Native American cultures. But I didn't give a crap. I didn't even bother to skim the synopsis on the back. It had a bird's name in the title; that's all that mattered. Kim was female, see? And I figured any woman would like a book about birds. Even if it didn't have pictures in it. And even if the amount of words in it suggested there'd be a bunch of human-type characters in it, along with the bird characters. My mother was wholly unimpressed by this logic. Hence, her immortal words: "Never buy someone a book as a Christmas present!" (Truth be told, she should have amended the rule a bit to, "Never buy someone a book as a Christmas present when you're eight!" But my mother hates being edited.)

However, her rule is still one I consider come holiday time, even though I don't obey it. When I do decide to give a work of prose as a gift, I try not to attach that dreaded qualification, "I thought you might enjoy this." Why? Because it's never true. In most cases, I give people a certain book because I think they should enjoy it. Or learn from it. Or discover in the course of reading it, how right I have always been about everything. And this is how gift-giving can quickly turn into a form of passive aggressive punishment.

"Here, Aunt Linda. Here's a copy of THE HORSE WHISPERER! I'm so sorry you've never had a love like this one. Maybe if you were less critical of every guy you dated? I'm just sayin'…"

"Merry Christmas, Uncle Mel. How about a copy of FAST FOOD NATION? You can read it on the treadmill when you finally decide to haul your fat behind to the gym!"

Hardly what I would call shining examples of the holiday spirit. And passive aggressive gift-giving in general is an American epidemic worthy of intense study by several think tanks, but that's fodder for another blog entry. That said, reading a book is an incredibly intimate experience, in which a willing reader surrenders to the mental landscape of the author's consciousness, frozen as it is into a series of well-reasoned arguments or fictional interludes. When we take on the responsibility of making such a connection between two third parties, it's hard not to abuse the power. It's hard not to drop-kick our loved ones into a third dimension from which they will emerge with a new respect for our brilliance, and not just that of the author.

So is there a right way to give a book as a Christmas present? Yes. Give them a book you loved. And say so! Instead of telling them how they should feel about it, tell them how you felt about it. Then you're giving her something she might have been unwilling to take the risk on if the cost was coming out of her own pocket --- that's one of my favorite qualifications for a good gift. Of course, this works best with the people closest to you, people who might desire a peek into your soul. And yeah, at first it may seem a little self-involved. (Throw in one of those portable breathalyzers or an iTunes gift certificate just in case.) But look at it this way, in this troubled publishing climate, you won't just be making the case for a certain book; you'll be making the case for books in general.

Tomorrow, first-time novelist Antoinette van Heugten shares a few holiday stories about her children, who inspired her debut novel.