How to Give Someone a Book They Actually Want

gift booksCan I get an “Amen,” bookish people? We’ve all done it, and we’ve all had it done to us.

As people who love to read, we’ve all given our friends books we’re absolutely SURE they will just LOVE, and then been crushed by their shifty eyes when we ask how well they liked it.  And we’re no stranger to that gnawing pit in our stomachs when our friends give us books we don’t really want to read, either.

So where does that leave us — do we just throw in the towel on bookish giving? Renounce the pleasure of giving thoughtful gifts to bookworms? Resort to sad little gift cards that might get spent on coffee instead of books?!

No. The good news is that there are legit methods and theories about how to match up readers to books, and some of us even spent a lot of dollars on fancy degrees to learn how it’s done (ahem). But don’t worry, you can get in on the secret for free by chatting up your friendly neighborhood librarian, or you can just read on to get the gist.

First, we need to talk about the two cardinal sins of book giving:

  • NEVER give someone a book just because you thought it was the VERY BEST BOOK EVER OF ALL TIME.

It is adorable that you think everyone else likes exactly what you like.  But it probably won’t score you very many points in the gift-giving department.

  • NEVER give someone a book just because it has a similar plot, topic, or genre as something else they liked.

I know… what?? But trust me. Just because someone liked three books about international crime espionage starring lesbian vampire spies does not necessarily mean they will like a fourth. Say it to yourself over and over, like a holy bookish mantra. Once you’ve internalized this, you will be SO much better at giving books.

When we give books based on plot or topic, we’re misunderstanding what really goes on in our loved ones’ reading lives. The absolute perfect book is one that will be able to recreate the specific pleasurable experience they get from reading.

So hunker down and ask yourself: what does your book nerd really love most when they read? Is it:

  • STORY: that giddy feeling of rushing to the last page at top speed (think thrillers, page-turners)
  • CHARACTER: growing so attached to the characters that they feel like friends (think family sagas, memoirs)
  • SETTING: becoming immersed in the details of a certain place or time (think historical fiction, sci-fi)
  • LANGUAGE: savoring the author’s way of artfully putting words together (think literary fiction, award winners)
  • MOOD: getting into a story’s specific quirkiness, grittiness, or authenticity (think humor, horror)

Some librarians call these “doorways” while others call them “appeal factors,” and you can call them “bookish kryptonite” if you damn well please. (Jargon alert: in library land we call the whole shebang “Readers Advisory” and we owe our thinking to folks like Nancy Pearl and Joyce Saricks.) You can get creative in imagining other appeal factors, too — do the books they like hold a particular philosophy or worldview? Are they always darkly funny? Chock full of factoids?

Once you’ve renounced plot and really understand the deeper appeal that turns on your special bookish someone, you can break it down even more. Sure, she likes to read for “Character,” but what kind?  For my mom, it’s heroes, explorers, adventurers; Candice Millard and Stephen Ambrose-type stuff. For me, it’s badass women on the wrong side of the law.

Or maybe she’s more of a “Setting” type of girl. Does she love densely imagined hard science fiction? Give her The Martian and leave The Martian Chronicles at the book store. If he likes getting immersed in the details of foodie books, give him Anthony Bourdain instead of M.F.K. Fisher, who’s got more going on in the language department.

Your beloved bookworm might be drawn to more than one appeal factor, and that’s cool, too.  Librarian-about-town Nancy Pearl describes each reader’s tastes as a pie chart, with one or two giant slices even if she’s got at least a tiny sliver of each. Books themselves can also be divvied up into a pie chart of multiple appeal factors.

And that’s the secret to giving someone a book they actually want. Forget about plot, forget about what YOU like, and use your fine-tuned readerly intuition to uncover what really makes your reader tick — whether it’s story, character, setting, language, mood, or some new appeal factor so awesome that librarians haven’t even invented it yet.

I still remember the day I decoded my mom’s love of history books as a thing for heroic, noble characters.  I started giving her better books, and her eyes started getting a lot less shifty when I quizzed her about how well she liked them. It was pretty cool.

What makes the readers in your life tick?

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