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December 22, 2011

India Knight on How to Give Books

Posted by Katherine


India Knight is a journalist and has a blog. Her book COMFORT & Joy is available now from Penguin Books. She lives in London. Here she writes about what booksmake good gifts.

There’s never a better present than a book --- diamonds in boxes notwithstanding --- and, equally, there’s never a worse one. There are thoughtlessly given books, as when my former husband gave my vegetarian sister a cookbook about road-kill. It sounds funny now --- it’s making me snigger at my keyboard, in fact --- but the joke wasn’t intentional: it was more a question of “What can I grab from the cupboard where we stick all our unwanted stuff?” and coming up with the least suitable gift imaginable. (She wasn’t that amused. He’s upped his game since).

The thoughtfully given book, though --- the book that is the absolutely perfect match for the giftee ---  is a source of eternal delight. The perfect book is seldom something just-published, or something gracing the top of the bestseller charts, though of course it can be. Usually, though, it is something reasonably obscure, or at least reasonably obscure to the giftee. I love old song lyrics, for example --- they’re so verbally dextrous and funny and enchanting, and I’m the kind of person who rolls their eyes at the staggering inanity of much of the current output. I listen to a lot of Cole Porter, but I wasn’t aware that the best of these lyrics --- from 1900 to 1975 ---  had been collated and anthologised (in Reading Lyrics, eds. Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball, Pantheon Books) until a girlfriend presented me with the book for Christmas. It was one of my favourite presents  ever, in the whole world. Years later, the book still graces my coffee table; I still refer to it constantly, recommend it to people and --- yes --- buy it for them at Christmas.

There are so many examples: the year I finally managed to get my teenage son out of his reading slump by giving him a Christmas copy of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, by Mark Haddon, which in one fell swoop rekindled his love of books. The year I gave a friend --- an Iranian exiled in London --- a copy of Marjane Sartrapi’s wonderful graphic memoir Persepolis; or the year my stepfather, in a flash of purest brilliance, gave me all of the novels of Nancy Mitford. I was, I think, 13, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this particular gift is what started me writing fiction myself. Thrillingly, I was recently asked to write the introduction to Ms Mitford’s collected novels by her UK publishers. The intense, semi-disbelieving pleasure of seeing both our names on the book’s jacket sends me into spasms of ecstasy that I can’t even describe.  That feeling of joy can be traced directly back to Christmas morning, 1978 and to my stepdad handing me a clumsily-wrapped bunch of paperbacks. Like I said, books make the best presents.