O symmetry, asymmetry

Thursday, 24 December 2009 — 2:54pm | Literature

In recent years, I have developed a reputation in the family as someone notoriously difficult to shop for whenever Christmas comes around. This may seem odd at first, because the only material possessions I truly crave are the same things I have always craved: books, old films, and LEGO pirate ships. The difficulty is that with spare exception, the people who shower me with gifts are typically not in a position to introduce me to books and films, nor are they aware of what already resides in my library or what I am likely to appreciate. (Asking for jazz records would be a disaster waiting to happen.) They know this, and I know this. It has come to the point where I have seriously considered drafting a registry of books that are on my list of titles to read or collect, a practice normally reserved for weddings and baby showers but no less appropriate here.

It would only be one step removed from what I currently do, which is request nothing but Chapters/Indigo gift cards so I may dump more funds in my online account for special orders to come. If I am lucky in a given year, I would receive at least one of these cards amidst the piles of genuinely thoughtful gifts that are nevertheless most definitely not made of plastic bricks and do not, try as I may, snap together with the satisfying clicks of childhood workmanship. Thus far I have resisted establishing a full-fledged registry for the conventional reason: an aversion to mechanizing away the possibility of an exceptional present—the kind that is creative, surprising, and perfect in ways I wouldn’t have come upon myself. Let it be known that I do appreciate most of the loot I receive; I only worry that I let a frightful lot of it sit around unloved. One need not be the buyer to succumb to the trappings of a Charles Foster Kane, buried in worldly treasures with nary a Rosebud in sight.

My spoiled little crisis of material saturation is not without an upshot, however, for it has made giving, not receiving, into the seasonal pleasure it was always touted to be. I may put the burden off to the last minute every time, but being the family book supplier sure has its perks. Matching people to books is an involving game in itself, and one that invites improvement year to year. It isn’t enough to select something you think the recipient ought to read: it has to be something they are likely to take off the shelf and open. And there’s always some measure of risk, especially when you give books that you have not read yourself and do not know firsthand to be any good, but which you estimate to be a good fit based on your prior experience with the author and your assessment of the recipient’s tastes. To introduce someone to a book they may never have discovered themselves is to lead them outside their comfort zone of known knowns, which may not include a regular habit of reading anything at all.

This, as I see it, is the best way to test how well you understand someone: find something they haven’t read, which you think they ought to read, and which they are likely to try and enjoy. Voracious readers are a challenge because of the first condition; people who don’t read enough are a challenge because of the third. The second condition, which may sound like a paternalistic outlier, serves more than an educative purpose. A gift that contravenes the giver’s values is a gift in bad faith. There are some authors who are frankly never getting a dime of my money, and to present their works to somebody else who may well enjoy them would be no selfless charity, but would leave me with a lingering guilt of having done harm.

Don’t think too hard about the transactional cycle in play, where I receive gift cards one Christmas and expend them on gifts the next. The aim is not to biblioptimize, and I do not keep score. Happy Christmas, one and all.


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One rejoinder to “O symmetry, asymmetry”

  1. Amazon wish lists may be just the thing for you. Of course, there is no requirement that people actually use Amazon to buy the books, DVDs, Legos, or what have you — but if they do, the item is automatically deleted from your wish list, which is convenient. Americans, but seemingly not Canadians, can even add things that aren’t on Amazon at all, though you might want to try these instructions and see if they work anyhow.

    Thursday, 24 December 2009 at 8:41pm

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