Dear Book Maven: Digital Dilemma

We hope you enjoy this column of bookish advice, penned by our own Executive Editor Bethanne Patrick, who also happens to be the author of a book An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy.


Dear Book Maven,

I love giving books as gifts, but as more people are reading ebooks, it’s just not the same to give a code or an email for a digital download of a book. If I know that someone only buys new books for themself on an ereader, is it rude to buy them a physical book?

Yours truly,

Digital Dilemma

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Dear D.D.,

This may shock you, but I’m going to step away from the bookshelves for a moment (breathe, Bethanne, breathe!) so I can remind us both of what you’re really talking about here, which is not books per se, but gifts per se. An important difference, and the reason why gift cards and codes and emails are so hotly debated in each year’s winter holiday advice columns. To many experts in that field, handing over an envelope with a plastic gift card smacks of everything from laziness to commercialism, probably with an unwholesome whiff of eggnog candle wafting around, too.

On the other hand, if you can give a gift card or download code for everything from spa days to power tools to scented candles, why not give a gift card or code for a book?

So the real problem here isn’t about whether or not giving an ebook in place of a paper book is OK, but whether giving a transactional object of sorts is ever OK…right?

In which case, Your Maven has a quick and easy answer for you: NO. Just. No. Eschew the gift card, no matter how cute the ones from Target may be. You’re supposed to give objects to people, not transactional objects to people.

Now, here’s the thing about ebooks: They are the thing itself, but you cannot give them that way. Unless you and your friend share an ereader, you cannot simply give him an ebook. Instead, you must give a code, or a gift card, or some sort of email certificate…aaaand we’re back to transactional objects.

If your friends love to read and you know that they only read digital material, you might think about giving them a funky bookish accessory (Penguin Classics water bottle, anyone?) in place of content. If you friends love to read, period, then you have no problem.

Done and dusted,
The Book Maven