Winter Guide: Holiday Gift Books for Any Kind of Troublesome Friend


A book may seem like a simple gift idea, but that’s just one of the zillions of lies we tell ourselves during the holidays. Nail clippers—those are simple. There’s little chance your recipient will find some subjective problem with a pedicure set, unless the model you choose mauls rather than severs cleanly, or sends sharp cuttings flying across the room and under the dresser. And yet—your intended won’t notice those flaws until after she’s used the mechanism. Books can disappoint even before your giftee gets done tearing away the wrapping. Aww, comes the dejected whine as the enormous bird-head appears, I read the Franzen already.

Books are myriad, people are specific: You’ll never get it right. But it may help your quest if, before confronting the tsunami of published material out there, you fit your recipient into one of these handy psychological profiles, based on your loved ones’ strongest traits and your desired level of intimacy with them, and consider our recommendations. It may keep you from dumping that Nicholas Sparks book on the pal who just got a PhD in literature.

For Idiots

Any book will do for an airhead, right? Wrong. If you’re in the awkward position of having to gift someone only slightly more intelligent than a decorative cabbage, you’ll want something non-insulting (so steer clear of Oogy: The Dog Only a Family Could Love by Larry Levin), but don’t go over their heads. And get one you won’t be embarrassed to bring to the register yourself. For dull guys, The Confession by John Grisham or anything by Stieg Larsson will do, and traditional women won’t bristle at the Sarabeth’s Bakery or Barefoot Contessa’s latest cookbooks, respectively From My Hands to Yours and How Easy Is That? Still flummoxed? Don’t get a book. Get a fluffy pillow.

For Eggheads

This type should prove easier to buy for—eggheads and books are besties—but know your snob. Arty connoisseurs might find the definitive John Cage biography Begin Again by Kenneth Silverman thrilling, but science geeks will drool over The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks’s true tales of eyeballs gone wrong (including, poignantly, his own). Those who go autistic for comix might become obsessed with Charles Burns’s X’ed Out, the first in his new series of surrealistic adventures, and bookworms will devour the Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2011, edited by Aleksandar Hemon, an overdue challenge to the hegemonic Best American series, or they’ll pore over the 1,000-plus-page volume 4 of The Complete Works of W.H. Auden, which covers high points and ephemera alike in the poet’s oeuvre. Recent high-quality fiction includes (but is not limited to): Monique Truong’s story of identity and food in North Carolina, Bitter in the Mouth; World and Town by Gish Jen, concerning cultural shifts in Chinese-American lives in New England; Padgett Powell’s all-question prose work The Interrogative Mood (now in paperback); and Tom McCarthy’s historical yet contemporary postmodern novel C.

For Depressives

Like Jew-baiter Mel Gibson, the Holocaust has made a mint in popular culture, but it still never fails to shock and dismay. World War II atrocities return in book form this season with the director’s cut of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, reissued with never-before-seen entries (probably not a tacked-on happy ending), and The Boy by Dan Porat, which tells the story behind a famous photograph of a child surrendering to the Nazis. If stateside mid-20th-century tragedy is more your giftee’s bag, Philip Roth’s novel Nemesis chronicles a polio epidemic in 1940s Newark. Hopefully the person you earmark for this one loves to read about children getting very sick. Tape a tab of Prozac to the wrapping just in case.

For Eternal Optimists

As an antidote to all that World War II anti-Semitism and death, your optimist may cotton to When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone, by Gal Beckerman, a nonfiction account of the rescue of 3 million Jews from Stalinist Russia. A Schindler-ish way of looking at Stalin, maybe, but far from Life Is Beautiful. If your eternal optimist is also an idiot, give him some pure bullshit like The Power by Rhonda Byrne.

For Your Cheating Partner

Jay Parini’s The Passages of H.M. imagines the thoughts of Herman Melville’s wife and juxtaposes them against the author’s homoerotic seafaring. Be sure to write “hint, hint” in your inscription.

For Annoying, Self-Absorbed Hipsters

The hipster is dead, said hipster journal n+1’s forum at the New School. If so, What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation—a variety of papers from the symposium on the decline of hipster culture—serves as his autopsy. Won’t it be, like, so genius if people notice that he’s reading it at Oslo Coffee shop in Williamsburg? Meanwhile, Keith Richards’s autobiography, Life, will prove to your pal that despite appearances, the Rolling Stone guitarist isn’t dead.

For Loveable Hipsters

Your stylish recipient will find it amusing that Penguin has named their new Ian Fleming omnibus The Blofeld Trilogy—who reads Bond books for the villains? (Who reads Bond books anymore, period?) But the cat-friendly baldie Ernst Stavro Blofeld was the model for Dr. Evil, so maybe he gets a pass. Racist Charlie Chan films can only be appreciated ironically nowadays, but Charlie Chan: The Untold Story by Yunte Huang will introduce your “fan” to Chang Apana, the fascinating real-life model for the popular detective, who, unfathomably, wasn’t offended by Warner Oland’s portrayal of him.

For Black Culture Buffs

The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, will lay to rest for your giftee one of hip-hop’s most enduring questions—whatthehelltheysayin’? It consists of almost 900 pages of rap lyrics, plus essays by Common, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Chuck D. This will re-energize that collection fa shizzure. If your person is more likely to want to know where the rappers’ parents came from, there’s Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a distillation of stories from the Great Migration down to three true narratives.

For Frenemies

You need a book that says both “I love you” and “I underestimate the crap out of you.” Perhaps no book will say, “You’ve heard of the Big Bang, right?” quite like Bill Bryson’s revamped Special Illustrated Edition (ooh, pictures!) of A Short History of Nearly Everything, in which bestselling middlebrower Bryson middlebrows the entire universe.

For Co-Workers You’d Like to Fuck After the Christmas Party

It’s a no-brainer: Giving Churchill Defiant: Fighting On: 1945–1955 by Barbara Leaming as a gift will definitely clue in your Secret Santa sex object as to what an ordeal it has become for you to repress your lust, though the fractured fables of David Sedaris’s Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk might promise a better time in the sack. What the heck, make it utterly obvious with Donald W. Pfaff’s scientific rhapsody of gender, Man and Woman: An Inside Story—the holidays can get pretty lonely.