Slender and angular, sitting in a pile of formless, crinkled parcels – perhaps jumpers – are presents arousing a familiar suspicion. The sight of them sinks the heart or thrills it with delight. Perhaps it leaves unmoved the more fatalistically resigned of us. A little handling and turning about confirms the suspicion: it’s a book.
In many a household, books yearly appear under the Christmas tree as inevitably as turkey on the table or reruns on television. They may not be a surprise at all, as it turned out with my eight or so course-books. Or they may be unexpected, as some of the most delightful Christmas presents are: The Art of Poetry, a lucid, jargon-free primer and a gift of last Christmas, did its part in crystallising my desire to study English.
Indeed, a present which a misguided few would call disappointing is in fact a focal point for many of our concerns about Christmas, namely that of how best to choose gifts. Broadly speaking, there seem to be three ways of picking books for Christmas presents. The first involves wandering into Waterstones, sheepishly (or shamelessly) approaching the bestseller shelf, and plucking off the latest ghost-written biography or derivative thriller after brief consideration. Somewhat similar is the approach which involves opening Google, inquiring after the “best gifts for bookworms 2015”, and pursuing the transaction to its bitterly impersonal end. It is perhaps safe to say that presents thus chosen are seldom received with exaltation. On the other hand, however, unwrapping a book at Christmastime can instead be the culmination of tortuous, painstaking efforts to select a personally-tailored gift. My grandmother, for instance, has repeatedly and rather too vocally assured the family that she was utterly delighted to receive Mary Beard’s SPQR, a book chosen to appeal to her interest in the classics.
However, content is clearly not the only consideration when choosing literary gifts. A dog-eared, coffee-stained Oxfam bargain, no matter how recherché its matter, is considered unthinkable as a present. If we really want to find something out, we can just as easily undertake our research on the internet or at the library. Christmas rather invites us to judge books by their covers, whether we choose to buy our only hardback of the year or splurge on first-hand editions.
Yet when we finally consider opening “the gift of knowledge”, the inevitable question is that of what “Christmas spirit” ought to be. Curling up with book in hand, one starts to wonder whether forfeiting human contact for eye-wateringly intense reading is indeed the best use of time typically reserved for family frolic. As one finishes the first paragraph, an extra hand is welcome in the kitchen, a natter over mince pies would not be amiss, and the card table is crying out for a fourth player. However, the idea that reading is rather too antisocial for the festive season is rooted in the same mentality which floods mental health helplines around this time of year. Christmas adverts, Christmas jumpers, Christmas songs – all those loud and garish reminders that ‘tis the season to be jolly create an aura of unrealisable expectation which will frustrate all who buy too deeply into it. The chances are that the twenty-fifth will simply see one pleasantly content and pleasantly overfed. So instead of yearning for dissipation in a haze of Christmas parties and hoverboards, feel no guilt as you recline to read with that same, understated pleasure.