Ether Between the Covers: Gifting Books in a Digital Age

June 2, 2009 | 8 books mentioned 13 4 min read

coverThe other day, while looking for books to buy my future nephew, I recalled The Real Mother Goose, a classic I had loved as a kid. I could conjure the cover, with its illustration of a witch and a baby, riding a giant, flying bird (a goose, I guess). And the border was checkered – the squares were black and white. I remembered the size of the book in my small hands, and the texture of its cover, and the thickness of the pages inside. It thrilled me to think that my sister’s son might hold this book, and love it, like I had.

coverFor a period, novelist Katherine Taylor brought The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier to dinner parties. “Wine is boring,” she told me. “Books last longer.” Later, she took to giving everyone Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, which, she said, “is not as dinner-party appropriate, but it was a gorgeous and largely overlooked book I thought my clever friends should read.” Now Ms. Taylor has moved onto handing out Maurice Sendak’s The Nutshell Library.

My husband and I met and became friends in the summer of 2000 as coworkers at Book Soup. At the end of the summer, when I was due to return to Oberlin College in Ohio, he gave me a copy of Goodbye Columbus. On the first page, he had written a note: “Edan – For the summer. Thanks. Patrick.” Of course we got married.

I love giving and getting books as gifts, and I’ve been wondering lately how the digital age will alter this ritual. Don’t get me wrong: I am not against the electronic book. As others have pointed out, ebooks will most likely inspire consumers to be more adventurous in their reading tastes. Nothing will go out of print, and the convenience is obvious. (I kind of want to read Infinite Jest on my iPhone – imagine how light it would be. Wait a minute… I don’t have an iPhone!) Once DRM goes away, and it will, the pass-it-on aspect of books will just explode. Book as mp3. Book as gossip. (If only that sexual astrology paperback we passed around in ninth grade had been digital…) In general, the ebook is a good thing for readers and writers. I prefer reading paperback novels, but if someone wants to read the book I’m writing on a fancy device, that sounds okay.

So, let me make this clear: I’m not announcing the purity of print books over their digital brethren. I don’t want to wax poetic (not too much, anyway) about the sensual pleasures of print books, how they feel and smell, the weight of them – although that must account for something, because what fun will it be to receive an ebook for your birthday? Will anyone even bother? The emergence of a new technology implies the death of another, and the rise of the ebook could mean that no one will ever again give you a novel for hosting a dinner party. I think I’m in mourning.

Why do people give books as gifts, anyway? I don’t mean just any book, but a specific book. Why did Patrick give me that copy of Philip Roth’s first novel? What did it imply?

coverLast week, a woman came into the bookstore to get a copy of A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. She said she always gives it as a gift to people she’s getting to know. Those who love the novel as much as she does become her friends for life.

I have a friend who likes to give Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being to women he’s interested in romantically. I told him he shouldn’t be dating anyone who hasn’t already read it.

For many of us, books are cultural signifiers: if you like this, you will like that, and I will like you. A book serves as an aesthetic litmus test, a conversation starter, a way to understand one another through a third party. The act of giving someone a book is an important performance; it’s not just the book, but the exchange itself, and that’s why a digital copy won’t mean as much. You could email someone a love letter, but if you write it by hand… Well then.

So, this: Reading is both a public and private act. It’s private in the sense that no amount of discourse can mirror or capture the intimate experience a reader has with a book and its author. But that discourse is precisely why it’s public – the blog posts, the reviews, the conversations over coffee, all of that affects and informs your reading experience. When you give someone a book you love, you’re inviting them to understand a private encounter you had with a text. It’s the fusing of the public and the private, the social and the intimate.

I’ve recently realized that I’m also mourning reading in public, because e-readers will change that game as well. If a book is a cultural signifier, then the act of reading a book in public conveys important information to other readers. I always check out what people are reading: in coffee houses, at the beach, in bars, on airplanes. I am taking note, I am building a reader’s identity. It’s like – what kind of jeans is your soul wearing? It saddens me deeply to think about how this kind of signal will be lost with the popularity of ebook devices. What can an anonymous Kindle tell me about your inner life, and about what entertains you?

Of course, the privacy of an e-reader is appealing, too. There are times when I want my private experience of reading to be just that – private. With a Kindle, I could read Stephenie Meyer on the bus without embarrassment. When I’m reading David Foster Wallace on my (nonexistent) iPhone, I won’t have to worry about some geeky douchebag hitting on me.

Again, I see the value of this new technology. I get it. I just can’t seem to let go of what will be lost…

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. You had me at The Real Mother Goose. A classic to have loved as a child and to give as a grown-up!

  2. One of my favorite things to do is pick up a used copy of a book I already own, let it sit around for a little, then decide what friend to give it to.
    I'm actually in the middle of the hardest part right now; deciding which copy to keep and which to give away.

    As for the reading in public thing? I will also be terribly sad to see it leave. I met the girl I am currently dating because she was reading The Elements of Style in a coffee shop. I couldn't resist talking to her, we agreed the serial comma to be essential, and things took off from there.

  3. I saw someone reading Cujo on a Starbucks patio the other day. I found the situation so weirdly remarkable.

  4. As much as I appreciate the new technologies, there is nothing like holding a real book in my hands. I'm not willing to let it go. Books certainly do bring people together, sometimes it will be the only thing to discuss that they have in common and that's ok. I really enjoyed your post.

  5. Seeing as my collection of almost 500 cds is still growing and I've never bought an Mp3 in my life, I'm pretty sure I'll be one of the old guard that continues to fill my bookshelves too.
    Me, you and all the kids out there, because I can't imagine you'd want to give anyone under the age of 5 a Kindle!

  6. I was going to leave a comment about your "lovely post," but effing MM beat me to the punch. I guess we already knew I wasn't trendy. So, seconded!

  7. Edan–Rare and antiquarian booksellers will be saved. We will all go out and buy lovely first editions of our faves for friends–unlike those scrawled-in paperbacks, these may rise in value, too! It's like giving a friend a cultural signifier AND some stock!

  8. Great essay. I loved the examples of folks who give books at dinners parties or as a get-to-know-you present. The inwardness of the ebook is a great failing, though it won't be long before hackers figure out a way to exchange files. Still it's not as gratifying as the literary voyeurism you describe, and which I noted on my blog as one of the 10 reasons to hate the Kindles: 2. Beautiful Russian ballerinas won't introduce themselves upon noticing your copy of Secrets of Nijinsky.

  9. Hear, hear, Edan! I also like the reading-in-public part. How will we judge people by the covers of the books they're reading? Also, every time I visit someone at home for the first time, I scan for bookshelves almost before greeting the host…

  10. Here in Barcelona, their equivalent of St. Valentine's Day, Sant Jordy, includes the tradition of giving books as gifts. Rumor has it that half the books sold in Catalunya in any given year are sold around Sant Jordy. I myself tried the trick this year with a girl I met on the bus. I gave her The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolano, in the original Spanish. While my attempt to woo her failed, I have created another fan of an amazing writer. So I got that going for me.

  11. It's true, ebooks lack the ability to visually communicate their current content across the room, but that doesn't mean reading on them has to be isolating. That social exchange that print books enable will be enabled by other technologies.

    As an example, I can imagine the following sort of scenario in the coming years: As you walk into a coffee shop, you're already receiving data on other patrons over your mobile device, assuming they play along and participate in the same data-sharing network(s). (And if they're in your age group and demographic, they most likely do.) You get an automatic alert that four people on the premises have book interests similar to yours–this happens because you track your reading on a site like, and so do they. You check out their basic profiles, constructing a preliminary personality for them based on their user names, avatars, real photos, etc.–whatever they've chosen to share. You might then ping them with a text message, tweet, or whatever communication style is trendy at the time. The two of you may only chat via text and leave it at that–sort of a polite acknowledgment of each other–or you may be waved over by him and sit down to say hello, and argue about the rating he gave a book you love, or tell him if he likes this author then he should try this other author.

    This isn't even that sci-fi-ish, because it can already happen now with existing phone and web technologies. It just doesn't because it's not easy enough to do it yet, and there aren't enough people comfortable with it.

    But my point is that, yes, things will change, but people don't stop being social. It's quite possible that new technologies may even give people the tools to be more social–and reading can still be a part of that.

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