Some people associate this time of year with gathering around evergreens. Others prefer candelabras, and still others prefer listening to white noise on the radio. Some of those people give presents at this time of year, and sometimes they give books. However, giving a book can be difficult. Most fiction and non-fiction books (aside from cookbooks, textbooks, and collector's items) are relatively cheap. Think about the average presents you buy for people. Books are probably on the low-end scale when it comes to cost.
So it isn't the cost of the book that gets people flustered. Some people don't know which book to buy. Here is a bit of unsolicited advice, followed by a short, incomplete list.
First of all, go beyond the bestsellers. You're looking for a gift for someone who reads, and if that person cares enough to read a lot, that person has probably got the obvious books. The exception to this would be children's classics that a lot of people have read, but they may not own copies any more. I'm talking about titles like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, or The Paper Bag Princess. Where the Wild Things Are could have been on this list last year. Now I think everyone owns a copy.
Second of all, put some thought into it. Giving a book says one of two things: a) you know the person well, and the gift is going to be appreciated, or b) you couldn't think of anything else--and I mean you couldn't think of a single thing. In either case, you need the gift to be thoughtful. I hope the following list helps.
Ever wondered what Aristotle was thinking when he was tutoring a Macedonian prince named Alexander? The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon, gives you some clues. (This novel includes strong language, sexual themes, and violence.) It got massive press in Canada this year, but I don't know how it's getting promoted elsewhere in the world.
Sticking with the Greek theme, Gates of Fire, by Stephen Pressfield, is one of the grittiest books I've ever read. There is no "THIS! IS! SPARTA!", but the story has everything from Frank Miller's 300, and then some. (By the way, you've seen 1776, right?)
For those into historical fiction with a dash of romance, there is The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant. What's a girl gotta do to survive and thrive in Renaissance Florence?
Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson, offers a fresh look on fantasy. Even better, it's the rare fantasy novel that is one book long. I also reviewed it earlier this year.
Want a graphic novel? Skim is worth it for Jillian Tamaki's art alone, but Mariko Tamaki's story is every bit as good.
Know someone who's interested in multiculturalism, and wants to know why it seems to work in Canada when it doesn't in other countries? Try A Fair Country, by John Ralston Saul. Read the section called "A Métis Civilization" if you want to score bonus points with the reader.
I hesitate to put Coraline on this list, because the movie has made it a popular title (as if being written by Neil Gaiman wasn't enough of a boost), but if you know a child (age 8+) who doesn't have this book, you can be the cool one who introduces him or her to this tale. It has kidnapped parents, talking cats, and mice that play in a marching band. Scary enough to grab a child's attention, but not scary enough to get them to stop reading.
The bottom line is that you can get someone a good book just by putting a little bit of thought into it.
Note: This list was (mostly) free of picture books, kid-lit, and teen-fic for reasons relating to my work. But I can casually mention that you can visit my publisher's web site here and browse through some of the categories, such as "Governor General's Literary Award winners". Do as you will.
(Photo courtesy of bibliodyssey.)