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How To Buy Books For People Who Don’t Read

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Whenever it comes time to buy someone a gift, the urge among book lovers is often to give a book. I know I’m constantly trying to find the perfect books for friends and family. But how to buy books for people who don’t read? Someone who doesn’t love reading just hasn’t found the right book yet, right? And that’s where you come in.

It’s Okay to Have Different Hobbies

The truth is there are plenty of adults who don’t read books for pleasure. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people. They might do a tremendous amount of reading in a professional setting and find pleasure elsewhere. They might consume print through newspapers, magazines, or online formats. Or they might get what you and I get out of books through other media: film, television, music, podcasts. You’d be better off getting those people gifts geared toward the things they already enjoy rather than buying them a book.

But books are my life, you might be thinking. I have to share them! I understand the urge to share a book you love. Sometimes a story captures a way of thinking or a particular experience in a very singular way. You might feel that if someone else reads this book, understands it, and loves it, now they have a window into your very being. Now you share a connection. While that might be true, this strategy is not likely to work with a nonreader. Give book recommendations freely; give books more judiciously.

Still think you want to buy books for people who don’t read? Time to consider what kind of gifter you are. 

A Gifting Taxonomy

I’ve spent a long time thinking about gifts, largely because I have a confounding family member who a) insists on receiving gifts and b) is impossible to shop for. If that sounds confusing, I assure you it is. Despite this one unruly giftee, I generally like giving and receiving gifts. So I’ve come up with a taxonomy of gifters.

First, there are the Straight Shooters. Straight shooters aim for the tier of gifts that may not be the most unique or thoughtful, but are sure to please. In my humble opinion, the best gifts Straight Shooters give are consumable items they are 100% certain the giftee will like. Good chocolate, a special and beloved tea, tickets to an event they will definitely want to go to, a candle in their favorite scent (obviously only for known candle lovers so you don’t get yourself into a peach candle situation).

It’s possible to be a Straight Shooter with non-consumable goods, like books. In that case, you’d better have good knowledge of what your giftee already owns. Imagine someone who doesn’t read but does collect Winnie the Pooh books in different languages. If you want to add to that collection with a volume from your vacation to Croatia, you’d better make sure they don’t already have it!

If your giftee is not a reader but is a collector, you could buy them a book about what they love, but I would still urge caution. I have a relative with a room devoted to Elvis but no room devoted to books. I still wouldn’t get her a book about Elvis. Some people have a “thing,” be it Elvis or cow-themed decorations or angels. The gifts they receive can create a feedback loop that reduces that person to that one thing. Did my relative intend to have a whole Elvis room or was it foisted upon her by decades of gifts? Ultimately, if she wanted a book about Elvis, she could get one. I try to recognize other aspects of her personality when I get her a gift.

Vanguards, Astute Observers, and Askers

There’s another tier of gifter, the Vanguard, who produces gifts unusual and unasked for but somehow unexpectedly perfect. These kinds of gifts take preternatural talent and taste. For example, I got married on short notice and at city hall, so I mostly missed out on wedding gifts. My mother-in-law’s childhood friend, noted classy lady, was the one (1) person who gave us a gift, however. It’s a Gurgling Cod. I had never heard of a Gurgling Cod before receiving one and now I can’t imagine my life without it adorning my dining room table. God-tier gift, right out of left field. True Vanguard.  I don’t know how to help you achieve Vanguard status, but it’s pretty unlikely Vanguards are ever buying books for people who don’t read.

A great kind of gift giver I believe anyone can become is the Astute Observer. I once pointed out a cool butter dish to a friend at an antique store. I then received that exact butter dish as a housewarming gift. Sneaky! And delightful. This advice applies broadly, but listen to people! If they mention offhandedly something they like, take note. You might just be able to give them the retrofuturistic butter dish of their dreams. Again, it’s possible that a nonreader might drop a book they’re curious about in conversation, but unlikely.

If you can’t be the astute observer, be the Asker. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking people what they want and providing it to them. There are plenty of skills you can develop in your life and gift-giving doesn’t have to be one of them! Surprises are often overrated! If you ask someone what they want, and they don’t say anything about books, don’t get them books. Simple as that.

Gifts as Acts of Aggression

The last tier is the worst kind of gift giver, the Burdener. It’s unfortunately very easy for a book gift to place you in this tier. The Burdener gives gifts that create a sense of obligation. These often come from knowing someone’s tastes, but not knowing them well. You might think it natural to give a skein of yarn to a knitter, but do you really know what they like to knit with? And are you going to ask them the next time you see them, hey, did you knit with that yarn yet? If so, you’re not a gift giver at all, unless you think nightmares are gifts. The same applies to books. If you insist on giving someone a book as a gift, never bring it up in conversation yourself. If they read it and like it, trust that they will tell you.

There’s also the stereotype of dating someone whose affection is contingent on shared tastes. I’ve lived it, and I bet many of you have, too. In my case, there was a particular musician I needed to learn to appreciate. This music was categorically not my jam. No amount of albums or DVD concert recordings gifted to me was going to change my mind. It soured the whole relationship. I foolishly tried to protect someone’s feelings by not telling them I didn’t like what they liked. They resented me for not seeing in the music what they saw. Avoid this fate!

Burdeners’ gifts can create fraught elements in a relationship dynamic. There can be mind games with how gifts are received and perceived. I’m of the mind that if I give someone a gift, there are truly no strings attached. Throw it away, sell it, chuck it in a closet, whatever. No hard feelings. Burdeners, however, want to see you wearing that necklace they gave you. The novelty clock that looks like a plate of bacon? It’d better be hung up in your kitchen. And they definitely want a book report on that book they gave you.

If you are such a gift giver, I kindly implore you to stop it. If you are being held hostage by a Burdener, draw some boundaries! Easier said than done, I know, but The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up has great advice about how to deal with gifts you don’t want.

If You Must

If you’ve read all this, and you’re still thinking, I still must buy books for people who don’t read, well, I do have some advice. Who’s your giftee? If your non-reader is a kid or teen, I believe it’s worth the effort to find the book that clicks with them. Consult your local librarians to help guide conversations with the kid that might result in a winner. And whatever you do, don’t judge the results! If the kid wants to read comics you think are inane or horror novels you find schlocky, that is a fantastic outcome. Those of us who loved schlocky horror as kids grew up to be adults who love schlocky horror and we’re very happy about it.

If you’re shopping for an adult, the advice to consult a librarian still applies. You could also try for the kinds of books that aren’t narrative — cookbooks, wildlife guides, collector’s guides, puzzle books, and coffee table books, to name a few. You could see if audiobooks are their jam if you and your giftee spend time together in a car, doing jigsaw puzzles, or engaging in other audiobook-friendly activities. Mostly, however, you should learn to respect individual differences. You should get comfortable asking people what they want and believing their answers. It’s good advice not just for gift giving, but for life.

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