Mini Object Lesson: The Gifts that Keep Giving

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, Ian wrote about the strange economy of gift giving. He suggests that part of what is so unsettling about the splurge of Black Friday is its flirtation with less calculable formulations of exchange and expenditure.

The following day I found myself at my local independent bookstore for Small Business Saturday, signing copies of my new book The End of Airports (okay, maybe I only signed one single copy, for my mother-in-law who was sweet enough to stop by and patronize the shop). As I talked to shoppers, I thought about an old quip: how a book is “a gift that keeps giving.” This slogan was first used to sell phonographs in the 1920s, and subsequently it was adopted to shill any number of goods and services. It’s reached a point of saturation such that it can now be applied ironically to unwanted things: Herpes, the gift that keeps on giving.

But books really are gifts that keep giving.

A good book is read only to be reread (sooner or later), or better, circulated in short time among friends or family members—read by many people, maybe even discussed at the dinner table or in a book group. Sometimes such circulation occurs until a book’s pages are falling out of the binding, its cover long lost.

One of the minor joys of my job is seeing the old tattered copies of books that students bring to class when we are discussing literary works such as Frankenstein or Lolita. Whether these books get transferred by campus bookstores for a modicum of profit, or among friends in bursts of passion or frustration, they are doing their job—giving, and giving again.

After finishing a book recently, I didn’t know what to make of it. It kept me up at night—I wondered whether it was this or that kind of book. Why did it make certain stylistic moves? Who was its intended audience? There’s something simple and generous about these nagging questions: the book has given them to me to ponder. Books give even after they are given. A new idea; unresolved feelings about something (or someone); a glimpse of a new place through descriptive prose…these are just some of the gifts waiting inside the wrapped covers of a book.

As our attention increasingly is directed toward new media modes of reading and consuming text, especially in the frenzy of holiday shopping, it is worth pausing to consider the older form of the bound book, a special kind of gift—a gift that gives in special ways.