The Art of Buying a Book for a Serious Reader

Posted by Cybil on November 14, 2018

This post is sponsored by Simon and Schuster.

Buying a gift for a bookworm seems like it should be easy, but it proves to be a daunting task year after year. Before you drive yourself crazy sleuthing through your friends and families’ reading habits, we thought we'd provide some expert advice to help out this holiday season.

We turned to Tom Nissley, who is not only the author of A Reader's Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year, but also the owner of Phinney Books, a neighborhood bookstore in Seattle (where he'll also be opening a second store, Madison Books).

Here are his tried-and-true tips for buying books as gifts:

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There's nothing I like better as a gift than a book, and that's exactly the thing my friends and family are most terrified to give me. I understand why. I have a lot of books. I have a lot of opinions about books. I even have a bookstore.

So what to do if you have a troublesome person like me on your gift list? You could always give them a shirt. It's quite possible they could use a new one. But fear not: You could still get them what they really want, and here's how.

Let's get the easiest solution out of the way first. Yes, it is perfectly fine to give a bookstore gift certificate!

It's hard to imagine a reader who would not be delighted to have carte blanche to browse around a store with free money and treat themselves to something they never would have bought otherwise. You could get a gift card from their favorite store, or perhaps since there are few things a bookworm likes more than discovering a new bookstore, you could give them a reason to try a store that's a little farther afield or in a place they might be visiting soon. (Or, if you want to be the most brilliant gift giver of all: May I suggest a gift card for a store in a place they don't plan to visit, accompanied by tickets for you to go there together. Along with the pleasure of the books and the shared trip, they'll appreciate that at least two hours of the trip are already earmarked for bookstore browsing.)

But what if you want to give an actual book?

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You might start with one of my favorite genres: the witty, browsable reference book. (It's a genre I love so much, I wrote one myself: a literary almanac called A Reader's Book of Days.) Books like that make for fun reading, but even better: They don't create a burden, because they are meant to be sampled, to be browsed in one spare moment and put down until another arises. They add to the books you can read without displacing any others!

There are wonderful books of this kind across all subjects (favorites of mine include David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film, Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract, and—to my surprise—Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez's Perfumes: The Guide), but, as you might expect, there are many with books as their subject, including some delicious new ones, including James Mustich's superbly chosen and beautifully printed 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die and Jane Mount's brightly illustrated Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany, as well as, on the more puckish side, Paperback Crush, Gabrielle Moss' celebration of the Sweet Valley High era of teen romances, a follow-up to the same publisher's deeply enjoyable Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction.

Beyond that, my advice is to go either very new, or old. If there's a very new book by an author, or on a subject, you know your bookworm loves, snap it up! I say "very new" because this can be a tricky operation: The more your person loves an author, the more likely they are to grab their new book themselves as soon as it goes on sale. But here's your safety net: If you buy the book from a place where it can be easily exchanged, the book is, in essence, a gift certificate, in which case, see above.

And then there is my preferred option: going old. My favorite gift for my bookstore staff (and—hint, hint—for myself) is an old edition of a book I know they love. In this connected world, it's not so hard to track down a first edition (better yet, a signed first edition) of a favorite book, and many of them are fairly affordable, just as long as your beloved's favorite book isn't, say, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (well-worn, unsigned first edition currently available for $5,500).

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Or perhaps there's a picture book they loved as a kid that has fallen out of print. I once, in less internet-y days, found a copy of Jellybeans for Breakfast at a library and presented my wife with a color-copied, hand-bound (well, stapled) edition of her childhood favorite, long out of print.

Similarly, especially if you are traveling, you might track down a foreign-language copy of a beloved book, just for the novelty of seeing those familiar words transformed. I doubt I'll ever read the copy of Nathanael West's Un milione tondo tondo my sister brought back from Italy, but I still love having it.

But going old is also a way of getting off the beaten path and finding a book that even your well-read recipient might not know about. The books I most love to discover as a reader (and a bookseller) are ones that have been hiding in plain sight: "lost classics" that were once beloved but have since been forgotten, or ones that never made a splash but have been kept alive by a small band of rabid fans.

For more of these "lost classics," check out these 47 books recommended by Phinney Books.

You can unearth such treasures with your own research (on Goodreads, or on the wonderful website Neglected Books, or via my latest bookish obsession, the British podcast Backlisted), or you can rely on some of the excellent publishers who specialize in digging up (and making lovely books out of) such gems, including NYRB Classics, Pushkin Press, Australia's Text Classics, and the new American Mystery Classics imprint. More than once, I've given my book-loving mother-in-law a little stack of NYRB Classics. Even if I haven't read them myself, I can give them with confidence, because I trust NYRB's judgment. (And they're pretty.)

Or you could take advantage of the judgment of another expert: your local bookseller. Walk into your local bookshop, if you're lucky enough to have one, and explain that you're looking for a gift for someone who has read everything. They might ask for a few details to help them steer you to a superb book that your reader might not know about. Or just ask the question they most like hearing: "What are your favorite books that nobody knows about?"

Because while a bookseller is very happy to sell you a new bestseller, a bookseller is very, very, very, very, very happy to sell you that underrated book they love and know everyone else would, too, if they just knew about it. (Some of my favorite answers to that question: The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis, The Golden Age by Joan London, Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara for short-story lovers, The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites for engineering types, Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household for thriller fans, and The Women in Black by Madeleine St. John for anyone looking for a happy, but not stupid, book, which, based on my experience, is everyone.)

You could also rely on those experts by giving one of the most generous reader's gifts: a yearlong book subscription. Many bookstores and publishers around the world have launched such services, in which they send out a well-chosen book every month, sometimes in a box with other goodies (although what "goodie" is worth the space that could be occupied by another book, I have no idea). NYRB Classics has one for their own books, as does the British publisher Persephone, which specializes in beautifully bound reprints of fiction, mainly by women. Many stores offer "first-edition clubs" or specialty subject subscriptions, and some, like Brilliant Books in Michigan, and Heywood Hill and the Willoughby Book Club in the U.K., promise individually chosen "bespoke" subscriptions. I should mention that at Phinney Books we have two subscription programs, one for children's picture books and one, called Phinney by Post, that, as you might expect from the above, specializes in those lost classics I love to find.

Finally, if all those choices still daunt you, the other thing a book lover values is time. Reading books takes time, something we never have enough of, and if you can't give a book, or are terrified to choose the right one, you can always give the time to read one (or three). Give your favorite reader a gift of uninterrupted time, when they have no responsibilities or concerns but the pages in front of them (and perhaps someone to bring a snack and top off their drink), and they might be the most grateful of all.

What are your best tips for buying gifts for readers? Share them with us in the comments!

Comments Showing 1-28 of 28 (28 new)

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message 1: by Dusty (new)

Dusty This is actually really helpful and now I know exactly what to buy all my friends! I think that I might want to check out a few of these next time I'm in the book store that I can get myself. Thanks!

message 2: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth S I’m going to send this to my family and friends so they know what I want for books this year. Thanks!

message 3: by Bethbe (new)

Bethbe Buy local authors. It supports local authors and might be a hidden gem. My SIL bought my husband the little known book “Matterhorn.” He read and loved it. Later we saw the author as an “expert” on the PBS show “Vietnam war.”

message 4: by Teri-K (new)

Teri-K This was a surprisingly useful article. Thanks!

I love to give the first book in a long running series that I think they'll like. If they do, they have lots of reading pleasure ahead after that. :)

For my birthday this year my son is taking me out to eat and then we'll go around the corner to a used bookstore I've not visited. Two treats in one!

message 5: by Mina (new)

Mina Book subscriptions? This is a thing? I need this in my life. Thank for the info. Now I know what I'm getting the readers in my life! (Because apparently one can in fact have too many bookmarks, book lights, and e-reader cases. LOL)

message 6: by Josiah (last edited Nov 15, 2018 10:46AM) (new)

Josiah Not only is Tom Nissley an author, and owner of an independent bookstore, he's an eight-day Jeopardy! champion, one of the great players in the show's history. I would listen to his advice on any subject.

Information on his Jeopardy! run:

message 7: by Saba (new)

Saba Why not ask the bookworm in question? They may need to think a moment but they can mot certainly name you a book they'd like as a gift. This way, you can't accidently gift them the wrong book.

message 8: by David (last edited Nov 15, 2018 10:56AM) (new)

David I'm still a fan of book-adjacent gifts rather than books themselves, just because it is so tricky to pick the right thing and books are generally cheap enough that if people want a book, they've already bought it for themselves.

My girlfriend once contracted a very good stencil artist who used to work at her company to make a piece of art for a book series I really love but that isn't anywhere near popular enough to have any kind of merchandise (let's face it, that's true of most books that aren't Harry Potter). It's one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. I still tear up thinking about it.

message 9: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Bethbe wrote: "Buy local authors. It supports local authors and might be a hidden gem. My SIL bought my husband the little known book “Matterhorn.” He read and loved it. Later we saw the author as an “expert” on ..."

Great suggestion!

message 10: by Eule (new)

Eule Luftschloss I usually give people a small list of five books or so I wish for, so it's still a surprise, and I can give different lists to different people so there won't be any risk of getting a book twice.

Then there are handmade gifts that may be quite fitting. I knitted a friend a Ravenclaw scarf and plan on making one for myself soon. Knitting is a thing I do in winter, somehow.

Another idea would be to gift a subscription to audible if they're into it, or a voucher for paying the yearly library fee next time it comes around.

I love bookish gifts. <3

message 11: by Matthew (new)

Matthew I agree with the sentiment of giving book related gifts rather than books themselves.

I personally spend a lot of time picking up and putting down books when I go book shopping for myself, to make sure I choose something I know that I'd like to read and I think it would be difficult for someone else to make the same choice.

Book related gifts on the other hand are great no matter what and you can't really go wrong them.

message 12: by Darrin (new)

Darrin Davis I love this! As a librarian with a penchant for ‘old’ and ‘weird,’ this article is right up my alley. Thanks for writing it. I’ll be asking for a gift card to our awesome local indie bookstore for sure this Christmas. Thanks!

message 13: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Morrell Oh hey, YOU'RE my local bookstore! Hot dog, time for a visit.

message 14: by Kelly (last edited Nov 15, 2018 06:41PM) (new)

Kelly I am a reader and would love any single one of these suggestions.The only problem is that after reading this my to read list has just grown even bigger:)

message 15: by Jacquelyn (new)

Jacquelyn Christopherson Great suggestions and information.Thanks.

message 16: by Cathy (new)

Cathy I used to give books to all my family and friends especially for Christmas. I don't do this any more because people read on a variety of devices and the book buying process for this is too complicated.

message 17: by Veronica (new)

Veronica I have a "wishlist" shelf on Goodreads for books I want to read but don't have. My hubby knows exactly where to look for gift ideas :) And it's still a surprise because I don't know what he might pick.

message 18: by Anna (new)

Anna Adolfsson Great advice!
Does anyone know if there's anything similar to the Phinney by Post in Sweden?

message 19: by Cara (new)

Cara Great article! I’m so glad you found a copy of Jellybeans for Breakfast - most people have never heard of that book, but I still have the copy that my grandmother used to read to me!

message 20: by Sue (last edited Nov 16, 2018 05:14AM) (new)

Sue Cartwright So helpful, especially the question booksellers most like hearing: What are your favourite books that nobody knows about? I shall try this out at local bookstores leading up to Christmas, for myself as much as for my reading friends. Thank you!

message 21: by Dvora (new)

Dvora When I'm reading a book I love (which doesn't happen often) I tend to think of one or more of my friends who would love it too. That's how I choose a book to give. If nothing like that happens, I might give a gift certificate. But I think there is something special about sharing a book you love with a friend.

message 22: by Melanie (new)

Melanie This is the third time in two days someone has recommended The Queen's Gambit. I'm taking this as a sign. Also, I want to corner this guy and pump him for recs for several hours. I don't know him but I trust him now.

message 23: by Bernard (new)

Bernard Spencer The most woeful wrapped book gift is to discover -upon unwrapping- that it's one you already have on your shelf!

message 24: by Clare (new)

Clare O'Beara I recently bought a book at Octocon the Irish SF convention, and got it autographed for two young relatives by both authors. This gave me a perfect excuse to read the book before gifting, as, ahem, adult supervisor advisory, you know. You'll be glad to hear it is perfectly suited to the age group. Have Sword, Will Travel

message 25: by Clare (new)

Clare O'Beara Books are always a good gift! If someone already has that book, they can re-gift it.

message 26: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth These are wonderful suggestions! The only problem is that I am the serious reader out of my friends and family. The more difficult suggestions are finding those perfect books for nonreaders.

message 27: by Maggie (new)

Maggie Great suggestions here but I'd like to add one that I feel was overlooked: read a book together and discuss it with your bookworm! There is nothing better than having a friend with whom I can share all my feelings, frustrations, and fan theories.

message 28: by Isabel (new)

Isabel This is an old post, I hope the author gets to read my comment. I loved the idea of getting first editions as gifts. Long time ago, I gave away my first edition of "Como agua para chocolate". I didn't buy it again for years because every edition I found had the movie image. One day in my local flee market "Los Sapos" I found an edition with the same picture as the one I gave. Getting it was one of the best gifts I have given myself.
So yes, get first editions or those prior to movies and TV series as gifts to your loved bookworms. I can almost guarantee they're going to love them.

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