Please Do Not Give Me Another Freaking Bookmark

What to get—and more importantly, what NOT to get—for the reader in your life this holiday season

The most addictive and perplexing content of the holiday season is the magazine gift guide. I’m fascinated by this calculated approach to goodwill and how it encourages me to reduce my friends and family to single entities: The Baker, The Tech Fiend, The Mom, The Guilty, The Innocent.

If you’re shopping for The Reader, you’d be forgiven for concluding that a Reader is someone who spends all their free time drinking tea in bed and taking luxurious candlelit baths. You yourself may read a lot of books, but that’s not enough to be a Reader as far as gift guides are concerned. You have to also covet Jane Austen-themed socks and a witty Oscar Wilde mug.

So what do you get for the reader who’s just a reader, not The Reader? What do you get for people who like to read books instead of wearing them on a scarf? Here’s our list of things to avoid, and alternate gifts that readers may actually like.

What Not To Get: A Bookmark of Any Kind

So you think your literary friend might enjoy a bookmark! Your impulse is probably to buy the fanciest version you can find, which is, presumably, why a Secret Santa once gave me a metal one (bronze? Steel? It had the feel of a screwdriver). Perhaps you’ve seen the type; the body has a thin U-shaped cut out and they’re essentially meant to work like a giant paper clip, which, incidentally, is not something you should ever use as a bookmark. The weight of the thing made me apprehensive of what did, in fact, occur after I clipped it onto my book: it made the page flop sadly over, then tore the paper when I tried to slide it off, having far overreached its goal of marking my page. This bookmark was clamped on with such force that I would have been able to find my place even if I’d been sucked into a tornado and spat back out again. As I, regrettably, don’t know anyone who lives in Kansas and might enjoy such a feature, I later re-gifted it as a money clip. I’ve also received: an over-dyed suede bookmark that left two pages of my book smudged with purple, a tasseled bookmark that my dog pulled out of the book and tore to shreds, and a bookmark printed with the facade of a museum I’d never been to. I can appreciate that some people have real pet peeves about creasing a book (I think it adds a sense of being loved, like splatters on a cookbook) but you can do better by even your most perfectionist friend than buying them a bookmark.

Get instead: A book from a local bookstore which comes with its own paper bookmark tucked inside (two gifts for the price of one!)

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Photo by Wicker Paradise

What Not To Get: A pillow embroidered with a literary quotation

I have five embroidered pillows; my mother needlepoints them by hand and they’re delightful. Once when I was selling an old kitchen table through Craigslist, a young woman came to my apartment, took one look at my couch, and asked if the pillows were also for sale. She thought she’d be able to get a 10-foot table home on the L train during rush hour, but still! Let’s agree there is nothing wrong with decorative cushions. However there is a time and place for quotations, namely graduation speeches, sympathy cards, and tote bags. Quotations can start books and sell books, but they shouldn’t adorn a pillow. As Cicero says, “A room without books is like a body without a soul,” and a room decorated with literary quotations is like telling everyone your favorite book is Moby Dick and what a shame so many people are intimidated by its length!

Get instead: Electric Lit’s “Writing Well Is the Best Revenge” tote.

Photo by Bryan Clark

What Not to Get: A clip-on reading light

If you’ve ever stood in the checkout line at Barnes and Noble, you’ve probably seen these lights, which are about the size of a keychain flashlight and clip onto the cover of your book. The appeal, as I understand it, is that they allow you to read in bed while your partner sleeps, and since my husband needs less sleep than I do and we still haven’t figured out what to do when he wants to keep reading in bed and I want to pass out, we decided to try it. The overhead lights went off, he turned his mini light on, and I lay there, feeling like I was trying to sleep next to a man going spelunking, or, judging by the size of the light, a child working in the mines. The worst part was that the light was perceptible on my side of the bed, a guilt-inducing luminescence that reminded me that my better half was more committed to literature than me. He was reading Turgenev while I was trying to catch a few extra Zs because I’d stayed up too late the night before watching The Great British Baking Show. In short, I recommend skipping the artificial light in favor of the gift of daylight hours, free to read.

Get instead: Grocery delivery, babysitting coupons—anything that will allow your friend some leisure time to get reading done before bed.

What Not To Get: Tea

It’s time to banish the cliche that book lovers drink tea. It comes from the easily rebutted yet enduring belief that people who love books must either be tweedy scholars or homely women. The tweedy scholar drinks tea because he is modeled off a British person — no matter how many times Ricky Gervais hosts an award show, Americans can’t seem to shake the image of Brits as erudite, literary aficionados — and the homely woman does so because she’s not drinking anything stronger. This is a little more troubling than giving British people more credit than they’re due because it implies that if you love coffee or movies or large dogs or speed-skating, then a book is not for you. This readers-as-nerdy-homebodies trope is especially strange when you consider how we also love to stereotype writers as aspiring Hemingways who chase their coffee with whiskey and bad behavior, yet writers are among the most avid readers. But more to the point: if you haven’t read My Struggle with a generous glass of Pinot at hand, you’re doing it wrong.

Get instead: A pourover coffee maker and a bottle of wine for every volume of Knausgaard.

What Not To Get: 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich, or any other compendium of books you should read

You think you’ve read a lot of books? You think you’ve covered most of the classics and are making headway on the important books of our time? Proud of your Goodreads list, you say? Able to stave off the anxiety that all true book lovers feel when they realize they can’t read everything before they die? Well, read this book, and think again. Essentially, this book combines the gift of condescension with the gift of panic.

Get Instead: Electric Literature’s Papercuts party game, so that they can feel good about all the literary knowledge they already have!

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What Not To Get: Bookends

I hate to point out the obvious, but the purpose of bookends is to keep books upright when your shelf isn’t full. If you’re buying a gift for a true bookworm, they’re probably having the opposite problem and their shelves are packed end to end with books, their floor is covered in books, and their nightstand looks like a colorful game of Jenga.

Get instead: Floating shelves, because every wall looks better with books, even the one above your toilet.

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