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Chauncey’s bailout plan for literature: buy books for Christmas (with lists)

December 3, 2009

Last week in Virginia my sister, a smart and well read young woman, asked my advice on a book for her father-in-law for Christmas.  She casually mentioned she plans to buy books for everyone this year. I immediately thought: What a great idea! It would solve so many problems if we all did that.

First it would make buying presents easier. But more important, it would amount to a massive bailout package for bookstores and publishers, and God knows, they need one. If we all bought books for everyone on our Christmas lists, it might save American culture, at least as I know and love it. Can you imagine a nation without bookstores? Me, neither.

Of course, it does beg the issue of what book to buy for each person. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, if you do decide to join in on Chauncey’s Bailout Plan for Literature, let me lay down a couple of ground rules. No. 1: If at all possible, do your shopping at an independent bookstore, like Books & Books in Coral Gables, The Tattered Cover in Denver, or Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. Independents, like small businesses in general, most need the help.

Alas, far fewer independents exist today than even a decade ago. If there isn’t one in your community, then shop at one of the chains, Barnes & Noble or Borders. True, they have done all they can in recent decades to put independents out of business (boo! hiss!), but they do a good job of imitating the traditional bookstore appearance. If a chain store is all you have, you don’t want to lose it.

Do not buy books online or at a big box discounter. Yes, Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart, I’m talking about you. These companies have no vested interest in books, writers, readers or literary culture. Books are just another widget to them, and they’ve lately been using books as loss leaders to drive customers to their websites, where they expect to make up the money lost on books when shoppers buy pricier, more profitable items.

But, I add reluctantly, it is better to buy books from Amazon, Target or Wal-Mart than to not buy books at all. But only if you must.

Once you’ve settled on books for Christmas gifts, the question arises of what book to buy each person. My sister’s father-in-law, for example, is not much of a reader, so she thought something sports related might do, like Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, Jonathan Mahler’s social history set against the Yankee’s 1977 season. I could not recommend any golf or NASCAR books, his chief sporting pursuits, as I have no interest in those games. Perhaps someone can name a few for us?

Meanwhile, a number of critics, bloggers and websites have thoughtfully made gift suggestions this week. Many good books there, too. USAToday has a good selection of 12 new Christmas themed books, from Wally Lamb’s comic novel Wishin’ and Hopin’ to You Better Not Cry, by the determinedly controversial Augusten Burroughs.

NPR has a new list of “The Best Five Books to Share With Your Friends,” all of which would make dandy stocking stuffers, including The Collected Short Stories of Lydia Davis and Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli’s amazingly inventive graphic novel about a self-obsessed architect and college professor.

Karen Long, book critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, published a list of books for gift-giving this week, all titles from this year. Among them: Dan Choan’s Await Your Reply, Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, and Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (there it is again!).

If you want gift-giving advice from yours truly, I refer you to my recent selection of favorite books from 2009, which you can find by scrolling down on this page. I will also offer four evergreen titles: Why not A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens? Combine it with Les Standiford’s fascinating The Man Who Invented Christmas, the story of how Dickens came to write his iconic novel, and you’ve got a sure-fire fiction-nonfiction tandem.

Animal lovers should consider Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas, one of the finest pet memoirs of all time. I’m also extremely fond of High Spirits, a collection of Christmas-themed short stories by the late great Robertson Davies, one of Canada’s top novelists of the second half of the 20th century. All time faves without Christmas themes include Mark Harris’ trio of baseball novels (The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly and It looked Like Forever), Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, and the funniest book of al time, Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.

Please do us a favor, and share your recommendations for books suitable for Chritstmas gifts.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    December 3, 2009 12:44 pm

    You stole my oh so obvious idea Chauncey Mabe! Last year I did just as you noted above, for my sister, a big Standiford fan, I bought “A Christmas Carol” and “The Man Who Invented Christmas” and gave them to her as a single present. I thought this was a great idea. I was working at Books&Books and I was able to get her a signed copy of Standiford’s book and I got her a used copy of Dickens from the great little used book store right down the street. I think that as far as books for Christmas gifts go this is a fun thing to do, pair two books that seem to compliment one another or buy someone a book about their favorite band along with a cd or record. Buy a classic and a book of theory. Buy a novel and a book of poetry by an author who tries her hand at both. Buy adults beloved children’s books.

    Now I know that your plan focuses on buying new books to support bookstores and the publishing industry, but let me just say how much I love used bookstores and how wonderful they are. Not to mention that websites like half and amazon threaten to put used bookstores out of business too. Also even if your town doesn’t have a nice independent bookstore like BooksandBooks chances are that you have at least one used bookstore. Many of which also sell a small selection of new books. I am all for your bailout plan Chauncey Mabe, but if I could I would like to amend the plan to include used bookstores. Thank you.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 3, 2009 2:39 pm

    An excellent addition. Used bookstores are now officially apart of Chauncey’s bailout for literature.

  3. alexis permalink
    December 3, 2009 2:47 pm

    Yes, i got A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens and Les Standiford’s The Man Who Invented Christmas last year for christmas and loved it. This year, as soon as I am done with what I am reading I am going to read them to get into the holiday spirit.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 3, 2009 2:51 pm

    Alexis, I much recommend Robertson Davies’ High Spirits. I think you’d enjoy it very much.

  5. Tommy permalink
    December 3, 2009 3:04 pm

    why oh why can’t I post?

  6. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 3, 2009 3:05 pm

    I love this column, Chauncey Mabe. I’m heading for the bookstore tomorrow to do the bulk of my Christmas shopping! Cheerio.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 3, 2009 3:12 pm

      You’re welcome, on all counts. Oh, I guess one of those should be a ‘thank you.’

  7. DeeBishoff permalink
    December 3, 2009 3:13 pm

    I love your column as well. I have already bought a few books for my daughter and young grandchildren. Looking forward to more of your writing.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 3, 2009 3:21 pm

      Thanks, DeeBishoff, glad to have you aboard. What books have you bought already?

  8. Tommy permalink
    December 3, 2009 3:17 pm

    I like Rachel’s idea(s) of mixing book with c.d. cause asking for a book for Xmas is well, tres geek. We get it, but non lovers of all things literary may not. I also think her idea of supporting local used book stores is spot-on. I agree to such degree that Well Read Used Bookstore in East Ft. Lauderdale cash register has rung up numerous transactions on my gift purchasing sojourns there. Sure there is no where to sit and drink coffee, but the staff (like the fire) is so delightful. While having a conversation with the owner/operator a young woman walked in and before looking up from her Blackberry interrupted with “I’m not a book person, I am looking for a couple of authors for gifts for friends”. “Which authors?” inquired the shop keeper. “Kingsolver” okay not so bad so far, right? “Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer” she finished saying finally glancing up from her text messages. The owner and I exchanged glances before she set off to help this customer. I was so proud of the two of us. We both resisted raking her over the bad girl coals of snotty comments. Okay, actually we refrained in the sprit of Christmas, from making our snarky and snobby asides until the poor dear was out of earshot.

  9. Tommy permalink
    December 3, 2009 3:17 pm

    So books (that may or may not be Christmas-y)

    For 30 Rock fans: Tracy Morgan “I Am The New Black”, Alec Baldwin “A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce”

    Teens and Young Adults with a penchant for all things Vampirish: Anne Rice “Angel Time” or Neil Gaiman “Graveyard Book”

    King fans: Steer clear of “Under the Dome” and instead grab “Lisey’s Story”

    There is also Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “Sherlock Holmes: The Long Stories” to help those unfamiliar with Holmes get acquainted before Hollywood ruins another classic.

    As for me, I need a copy of “The City and The City” so I don’t feel left out anymore, “True Compass”, and anything in good shape printed before 1940.

    Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, be sure to let those around you know that you care. And be safe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 3, 2009 3:25 pm

      Books by TV comedians. In addition to Tracy Morgan, I hear Larry Wilmore’s I’d Rather We Got Casinos and Other Black Thoughts is excellent (love the title), and also John Hodgman’s More Information Than You Require, which, conveniently, is just out in a handsome paperback reprint. I’m getting all my information from Books & Books’ website, in case you’re interested:

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 3, 2009 3:18 pm

    Oh, and if you go for Rachel’s idea of mixing two complementary books as one gift, I suggest adding Gwen Cooper’s Homer’s Odyssey with Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas. That way you get a great cat memoir from more than two decades ago, a bona fide classic, and a cat memoir from two months ago, an excellent example of the genre as practiced today. Meow.

  11. Connie permalink
    December 3, 2009 3:24 pm

    Re a book gift for a golf lover: I haven’t read it (not a golf fan in ANY way) but what about Carl Hiaasen’s “The Downhill Lie”? I would imagine it’s amusing and not terribly long, if he’s not a reader.

    Nobody EVER buys me books for gifts, which is completely understandable given my job, but I tell you, I love getting a gift card (from an independent bookstore naturally). I know it’s impossible to know what I already have, but I still love to go into a bookstore and pick out stuff just for fun.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 3, 2009 3:29 pm

      Connie, for the first 10 or fifteen years I was an actual professional book reviewer, I did not buy a book. It seemed stupid, a waste of money considering all the review copies I received for free. Then about 10 years ago I bought a book (at Books & Books, natch), and it was like losing my virginity all over again. It didn’t hurt and it left me with a warm afterglow. Now I have to be very careful each time I enter a bookstore. Especially an independent, although, like Rachel, my real downfall is used bookstores. I have a damnable weakness for old books, and volumes published before the turn of the century (the 20th century, I mean) are often priced less than a new hardcover title.

  12. Tommy permalink
    December 3, 2009 4:22 pm

    I forgot to add Clarke and Pohl “The Last Theorem” for the Sci-Fi (not SyFy) fans. I know a certain fan that may be getting a copy, hopefully they have time to read it.

    Chauncey, you could use your influence to convince Books&Books to open a Fort Lauderdale branch.

    I am willing to start a Vowel Movement (consonants are welcome also) to bring Books&Books to Broward.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 3, 2009 5:29 pm

      Tommy, I’ve lobbied for a Fort Lauderdale branch of Books & Books for 20 years, but Mitch Kaplan says he “can’t make the numbers work.” And for all of his love of books and dedication to readers and writers, it’s making the numbers work that keeps him in business.

  13. December 3, 2009 4:39 pm

    Sorry folks. You are talking books. The best book for Children young and old is PurpleUmpkin. Go to , ( get an autographed copy if you want.) This book has been called the best book in 50 years by well known educators. You will hear about this book this year for sure. It was a big hit at the Miami International Book show especially with authors. We are Murples here and we really care. Best always from PurpleUmpkin

  14. Oline permalink
    December 3, 2009 5:23 pm

    What a great idea and one I have done for many years. Our next door neighbors are from Iceland which has something like 90% literacy. For Christmas, books are the expected and nearly required present, though I suspect a few Ipods and video games make into the mix too. Don’t forget the mystery fictions. In the past I have tried to time my best mysteries list to run a few days before Christmas
    Love the blog, Chauncey

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 3, 2009 5:32 pm

      Thanks, Oline. You know The City and the City, my top book for 2009, is a fantasy masquerading as a police procedural, right? And while the real pay off is with the fantasy, China Mieville never neglects the police procedural form, and ends up with a better ending than most. Even if this were nothing but a police procedural, it would still be one of the better books of the year. Like the two cities in the book, the author meshes the crime novel with the fantasy novel in ways that cannot be separated.

  15. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 3, 2009 5:35 pm

    Oh, and Oline, one more thing. I will soon be reviewing Dave Seltzerman’s terrific, funny and horrifying new novel about Boston’s Irish mob, Pariah. Seltzerman is a very sick man, and I say that as the highest of praise. Do you know his work? He’s published by Serpent’s Tail.

  16. DeeBishoff permalink
    December 3, 2009 6:12 pm

    The books I have bought so far are the last book of the Immortals series by Alyson Noel for my adult daughter and for my grandchildren “If You Give a Moose a Muffin” and “If You Give A Pig A Party” both by Laura Numeroff with a plush pig and a moose.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 3, 2009 8:45 pm

      DeeBishoff, it has come to my attention that you have also been spreading the love for Twilight, all four books, hither and yon. Good for you. It’s always a great thing to share enthusiasm for well-loved — more merely enjoyed — books.

      • DeeBishoff permalink
        December 4, 2009 8:50 am

        Loved the Twilight series, the movie not so much. True to the book but wouldn’t have chosen those actors. (Apparently everyone else LOVES them!)

  17. Connie permalink
    December 3, 2009 7:04 pm

    What I’ve always done – even in these years of being a book editor – is buy a book or two every time I’m on vacation at some independent. Elliott Bay if I’m in Seattle. Maria’s if I’m in Durango. Back of Beyond if I’m in Moab. You get the idea. I buy stuff I wouldn’t get, older books, or books someone else has reviewed. It’s fun to try and find something I want that I don’t have.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 3, 2009 8:47 pm


      Beneath the skin, we literary journalists are all alike. I’m a sucker for vacation books from indie stores. I bought a signed first edition of Roald Dahl’s memoir, Boy, for my daughter (a huge fan) when I was at Powell’s in Portland a few years ago. And I picked up an obscure version of the Tao at the Tattered Cover. And while it’s more of a used bookstore than an independent, I can never go to New York without a visit to the Strand, and I always come home with some slightly beaten treasure.

  18. December 4, 2009 9:28 am

    Well, of course, as a writer of books I have a vested interest in this whole topic. I’m sharing a stage on Sunday Dec. 20 with Charlotte’s John Grooms, whose new book “Deliver Us From Weasels” (signed, of course) will be wrapped and handed to the lefties on my list.

  19. December 4, 2009 12:55 pm

    Well, I think Chauncey’s book buying suggestions may be the best I have ever seen posted. Seriously, though, I got more pleasure out of writing The Man Who (re)Invented Christmas than any book I have done, principally because I have always been such a fan of the holiday and it was such a surprise to me to learn that Dickens had to self-publish what became the most beloved Christmas story of modern times. Moral of that story? The book business has always been tough– even for a writer we tend to assume always had it easy. Thank heavens that he had that confidence in his vision. By the way, I just got a look at the script for a joint CBC/BBC production of TMWIC–supposed to come out next year at Christmastime. Meantime, a happy and merry season to all.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 4, 2009 4:39 pm

      Good luck with the TV project, Les. And yes, I get tired of hearing writers whine, too. Good old Rust Hills, fiction editor of Esquire during its glory years, used there never was any Golden Age of fiction writing in America. Strictly a myth.

  20. Lizz permalink
    December 7, 2009 4:24 pm

    I must say the Happiness Hypothesis is a good one for anyone science-minded or wanting an interesting re-look at life.

    Also, there’s also the idea that you can get someone a gift certificate!

    What’s a good book for someone who has poor book tastes and rarely gets through a book, yet does not like sports or any other known hobbies?? (sigh)

  21. Kayla permalink
    December 7, 2009 5:04 pm

    So now I suppose I know what to expect from my dearest aunt for Christmas. When I see a squarish package that is slightly heavy, I will immediately think of the bailout plan. Excellent idea, by the way. I would choose that path for my mother, but as her favorite author is Dean Koontz and she owns every book he has ever written and doesn’t know the ones she doesn’t own, that is slightly heard to do. Any ideas for a Koontz lover that isn’t necessarily Koontz?

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