Off the Shelf: Christmas Shopping

How is your Christmas shopping coming this year?

Christmas shopping is one of my favorite things to do. I look forward to it every year. I love putting together a list, reflecting on what I know about the people I am shopping for and choosing things personally, things I believe each person will take some level of joy from.

I admit that it has become a challenge each year, especially as the nieces and nephews have morphed from children delighted at gifts to cynical teenagers, but I love it nonetheless.

Most of my gifts end up being books, since I worked for B&N for such a long time. And I love going to the store and browsing the shelves for the perfect gift, perhaps finding a little something for myself along the way.

This year, shopping has become more challenging. Considering that I rarely leave the apartment now, and then only to exercise, I thought I could shop online but my retiree discount doesn’t work online, only in-store. So I browsed online, figured out what I wanted to buy, called the store and checked out their safety precautions, then made a trip down to quickly purchase what I had chosen without browsing for other things.

Kind of takes the fun out of it.

If you’re looking for some great holiday gifts this year, here are my recommendations:

  • The Cartoon History of the Universe. This three volume series is a delight to read and makes history – from the earliest protozoa to the renaissance – easy to learn. I often buy these for teenaged boys, though this year my brother in law asked for them, perhaps because he’s studying to become a teacher.
  • Cookbooks. We buy a lot of cookbooks at Christmas. Sometimes for people who have received a new gadget, sometimes for cocktail aficionados, sometimes for my sister who loves to bake, or my other sister whose diet varies depending on which guy she’s with (right now, it’s Keto; before that, Ayurveda). Sometimes for high-school or college graduates who recently moved out on their own (try Where’s Mom Now that I Need Her or Where’s Dad Now That I Need Him); sometimes for teens who are being asked to ramp up their help in the kitchen.
  • Blank Books. I usually toss a couple of these in as stocking stuffers for the nieces – the nephews are not so self-reflective – along with some nice pens to write with.
  • Scientific Trivia. When the kids were little, I liked to give their dads books like What If . Try in science or in the reference area (over by the dictionaries there are a couple of shelves of these) or in the “bargain” area. I figure that dads get questions like this all the time and need to have answers at their finger tips. Also, they’re easy to digest.
  • The Vanishing Hitchhiker and other books of urban legends, also good for teen boys. There are actually quite a few quirky books like this in an area that most people don’t shop, the Literary Criticism and Essays section.
  • Quirky History Books. Most people know 1491 and Guns, Germs, and Steel, but there are plenty more in this vein that people find interesting. Try Dirt or Sugar. Or that one about the lobsters. Or there’s that series about life in the middle ages by Gies, which will also appeal to the light reader (I’m always scrambling for books for teenaged boys, for some reason). There are also some great geography books (like Why Geography Matters) in History that are fun.
  • For my in-laws, practical people who don’t read recreationally, we stick with photo books about Obama or the Pope or the Philippines, or life-hack books about cleaning, the ones you find in the “bargain” area. My father in law always nods with delight and says something like, “This will be very useful.”
  • For teenaged girls, I like books like Don’t Bet on the Prince, Anne McCaffery’s Harper Hall Trilogy, or Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy. Lately I’ve added Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book or Janet Kagan’s Hellspark (although you’ll have to order this one). Or I’ll go to history, and look for books about women pirates or other women who did something unusual that impacted the world.
  • For my nephew who doesn’t like to read and likes fancy sneakers, I can always find a photo book celebrating celebrity or artistic sneakers. (Check the art or photography sections.) Believe it or not, there seems to be a new book every year on this topic. If this is a challenge for you – because you’re not a grandparent or doting parent willing to shell out three digits on shoes for the connoisseur you somehow raised — this may be a good option for you. You can also find some great books on graffiti over there.
  • Back when my mom was reading, I could always find an amusing travel essay book, about a woman traveling alone through some area of the world where women don’t usually travel alone; or about someone who went to live in another culture, started by thinking how strange the people there were, and discovered it was really themselves who were strange. Road Rules is a fun one to start with, and will appeal to men, too.
  • Gerald Durrell’s My Family & Other Animals is a great gift. In fact, while you’re over in Nature, browse around a little – there are always quirky books about animals or nature that may surprise you. And if you’re looking for something for a teenaged boy, Close to Shore (about the shark attacks that inspired Jaws) should be over there, as well. While you’re there, check out the work of Richard Ellis, I was going to recommend his Monsters from the Sea but it might be out of print, which would be disappointing.
  • Some of my relatives were fascinated by The Da Vinci Code, so I started them on Bart Ehrman’s books, which far surpass The DVC in literary style and are historically grounded, while being easier to read than Pagels. If this is something that might appeal to someone on your list, start with Misquoting Jesus and, if they like that one, you’ve got gifts for life because Ehrman seems to write a new book every year.

So those are my suggestions to get you browsing. I will say it’s much easier – and much more fun – to shop for these things in person.

Next year!

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