Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Gift-Giving Gone Wrong

As much as I love this time of the year, and I genuinely do, I really hate shopping for gifts. I'm not a very enthusiastic or patient shopper, and the malls drive me crazy. Also, I always want to get people the perfect gift, but more often than not find that such gift is either nonexistent or way outside of my meager budget.

I also have a problem that (I imagine) many of you share as well. I love to give people books. I believe that giving someone the right book can be a really personal and thoughtful gift. But, alas, there are always unintended meanings that come along with gifted books. And no matter how much you try to avoid it, it is almost inevitable that whatever you meant when you chose a particular book for a gift will be supplanted by some other non-flattering (or offensive) interpretation. Gifted books are like Trojan Horses in that way... they hide something unexpected and dangerous inside. So, I've decided to do a public service here and give you a few examples of books that I would like to give as gifts, but don't because of the potential misunderstandings that they may provoke.

I'll give you the "intended meaning" behind the following gifts first, followed by the "secret" meaning. Take heed! Do not attempt the gifting of the following books under any circumstances!

WHAT I MEANT: "I want to share with you one of my favorite authors, Philip Roth, and I figured that I should start you off with one of his most famous and award-winning texts. Roth is a quintessentially "American" writer with an amazing ear for dialogue, and one of the few authors who can make me laugh out loud while reading. Enjoy!"

WHAT IT SAYS: "You are a pervert and you will soon go blind."

WHAT I MEANT: "This is one of the books that changed my life. It is a beautifully tragic existential drama that gives us a glimpse into the human soul in a way unrivalled by any other novel. There are very few people in the world that don't correspond in some significant way to one of the Karamazov brothers. I want you to read this and figure out which one you are."

WHAT IT SAYS: "I don't believe in God anymore."

WHAT I MEANT: "You know I love Memphis dearly, but I have a complicated relationship with it. I think this is one of those books that shows all the things that are lovable about Memphis without turning our beloved city into some whitewashed tourist destination. Gordon's book is also an interesting reflection on the intersection of politics, music and Southern culture. And he's a fantastic writer. The greatest thing about the book? Well, that would have to be the fact that if you didn't know it was true, you'd swear he made it up!"

WHAT IT SAYS: "You've been saying that you were going to come visit me for ages now. Well, forget it. Just stay home and read the book, you selfish ass."

WHAT I MEANT: "I know sometimes that you must wonder what it is that I do at my job. Well, I work on a philosopher named Derrida. I think this is one of his most readable and compelling books, and I want to share with you this important part of my life."

WHAT IT SAYS: "I'm so much smarter than you."

WHAT I MEANT: "Especially at times like these--you know, the holiday season when everyone is stressed and family ties are being strained--it's nice to be able to step back and take a look at families even more dysfunctional than ours. Franzen's story is a sympathetic portrayal of a family of mostly unsympathetic characters, but he somehow captures what is worth holding on to in the idea of family, even in all the pain and madness."

WHAT IT SAYS: "Actually, our family IS this messed up."

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
WHAT I MEANT: "This is a classic. Its rarefied prose, its compelling symbolism, its hidden profundity... I bet you'll read it in one sitting! As much as I want to dismiss it, I keep coming back to Hemingway's old fisherman in his boat when I need a way to think about meaning and mortality in a single image."

WHAT IT SAYS: "I think your reading-skills level still hangs somewhere around 9th grade."

WHAT I MEANT: "Very few of us will ever be able to finish Remembrance of Things Past, but this is such a great motivation to try. Also, Alain de Botton does a fantastic job here of showing what philosophy-and-literature in action looks like. I use this book as a constant reminder that literature can impact us in ways that we can scarcely imagine!"

WHAT IT SAYS (option 1): "Your life needs changing."

WHAT IT SAYS (option 2): "I know you love 'Little Miss Sunshine', but do you even know who Proust is?"

WHAT IT SAYS (option 3): "I am so, SO much smarter than you."

I am, of course, interested in your own stories of gift-books-gone-wrong. But you must provide the full account of meaning and (mis)interpretation!


kgrady said...

leigh, this is hilarious! imagine if your students regarded the books you assign with such suspicion.

Doctor J said...

Yikes! I didn't even think of that, Kyle... though, now that you mention it, that may make for another interesting post.

I was counting on you to provide your own contribution to this list!

petya said...

Christmas is a little bit harder for me this year since in addition to my own family and friends, I've got my NEW family to be thinking about too. That's really exciting for many reasons but also it's been a little bit stressful because I really want them to get PERFECT presents.

They are all avid readers, so I thought that books would be a good idea and then thought, oooh, I should get them Bulgarian history books.

WHAT I MEANT: I know you love to read, so I thought I would give you a book. Also, I would like to give you a book that you probably would not be able to find in the States. You just visited us in Bulgaria and you seemed to like it, especially the really old stuff. Here's a Bulgarian history book that you might enjoy.

WHAT IT SAYS: I am European. I am one of those Europeans who think they are better than Americans. Especially because they come from an old country. You should read about my country. Especially because Americans are ignorant and don't know anything about the rest of the world.

Needless to say, I am not gifting any books.

Doctor J said...

Petya, that is a GREAT one! And it exemplifies one of my biggest fears about gifting books, i.e. that the recipient suspects that I am secretly trying to "educate" him or her in some way.

bernadette said...

Actually, this is funny because I am giving my younger sister who is fifteen Foucault's _Discipline and Punish_ for Christmas because she just wrote this really compelling blog on her facebook "Tory Walking" (which you can read I think if you friend her first - it's under notes) and keeps complaining about how the world controls her. I want it to mean:
I love that you are fifteen and you write blogs in which you say, "To me nothing matters because I am swallowed by routine," and you make this statement existential: "I wake up dans la matin et me brosse les dents." I love that you are not satisfied with glibness. And you know that life matters but you can't figure out why. And I am so jealous that you think about these things at 15 and I want to give you a certain freedom in relationship to your frustrations by giving you a book that describes how you have come to be controlled in the way that you are.

What it says: I am Seymour from Salinger's "Franny and Zooey." I know better what you should read than you do. I want you to be just like me. Like your parents and your other siblings, I have an idea of what you should think.

But I'm also giving her a children's book, called "Who wants donuts?" that I love, and I have to say that I think children's books are almost no-fail gifts. They celebrate the child in all of us, especially if you find a witty one, which of course, this one is. And they say, I just want you to have fun and I'm not pretending you need what I'm giving you.

At least that is what I hope it says.

What it probably says: I'm giving up on your existential crisis, laugh at this book and eat donuts.

Doctor J said...

I knew you would have a great one, bernadette! Btw, which sister is it?

Keep 'em coming, folks!

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

The greatest piece of holiday prose I've read since David Sedaris as an Elf.

I had a bad experience with gifting Philip Roth once also, but I think it was the meaning I subconsciously intended.

The book was "My Life as a Man" which I gave to my brother.

What I meant for it to say: Here's a really great story about someone who is coming from a repressive background where sexuality is stifled that might have some resonances with the way we grew up. You and I have grown apart as adults but the self-deprecating and ironic account of a man attempting to reject what masculinity meant for him growing up and cultivate his own (utterly failed) modern understanding of being a man resonated with me and hopefully will resonate with you.

What it was taken to mean: Your wife is a psychotic piece of work whose manipulations rise to the level of hysteria.

The problem was that I really do believe the latter and was probably intentionally concealing this connotation from myself.

I have also been "lucky" enough to be "gifted" books by their authors (in the worse case, the author was related to me and someone who, shall we say was in a position to be responsible for some of the family dynamics implicit above.) Books gifted by their author are of course supposed to mean, "here's something I care deeply about" but are also naturally taken to mean: "Look at how great I am."

One last thing (and sorry for the length of this reply). There's a great passage in Immortality by Kundera where he asks what you should do if you adore Schubert and hate Schumann (in other words if you have good taste) but your friend hates Schubert and adores Schumann. Kundera is convinced that it would be pandering or patronizing to give Schumann and that you ought to give Schubert because that would be a genuine gift from you. I'm not so sure.


Doctor J said...

Ammon, I think your story definitely hammers the final nail in Roth's coffin. We should start a petition calling for a moratorium on "gifted" Roth books!

In related mis-communication news, I just saw that one of the winners of The Washington Post's Mensa Invitational (which asks readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting or changing one letter, and then provide a new definition) was:

SARCHASM (n.): the gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I'm all for signing that petition as long as it has an exception clause for me. I have "Exit Ghost" on my Amazon Wishlist and I hearby announce that if anyone gives it to me I will not read any subtle message into it (although I do think of myself as an impotent, incontinent writer who is losing his memory).

I think that I am going to start describing my teaching style as "sarchastic." Don't know how that will go over at the APA though.

Doctor J said...

Speaking of books, I had a post on this blog a while ago called "Your Place on the Bookshelf"

Feel free to add to that conversation, too!

jdrabinski said...

1. Any book about gay or lesbian people...

MEANS: this is a good book by a good writer.

SAYS: I've always wondered if you're gay/lesbian, and this is my way of asking.

NOTA: don't give this to insecure hyper-masculine men.

2. Any book about black people...

MEANS: this is a good book by a good writer.

SAYS: I have black friends, you don't, so read this and tell me how you actually really like black people a lot and just wish you had so many friends of color.

NOTA: give this, but be ready for awwwwkward conversations...

3. Any book about a moment in musical history.

MEANS: you have shitty taste in music and I'm intervening.

SAYS: you have shitty taste in music and I'm intervening.

NOTA: truth is our greatest gift to da Other!

4. A gift certificate to Barnes and Noble.

MEANS: go get your book on, kiddo!

SAYS: I'm not sure that you can read anything other than the cafe' menu, so I'm giving you this card that can basically buy a magazine and a scone.

NOTA: I like magazines and scones.

5. A shrink-wrapped copy of Derrida's Rights of Inspection.

MEANS: wow, I'm giving you an oversized Derrida book. I clearly love you.

SAYS: um, you gave me a book with a baffling commentary and a bunch of photos of naked women. Is this a come on? Or are you only pretending you know what the book is about?

NOTA: this example might have a wee bit of relevance in my life.

6. A copy of my new book!

MEANS: I'm so happy about my new book and want to celebrate it with you!

SAYS: I'm so caught up in my own head that I don't realize how this little "gift" only increases your anxiety about tenure, how if University Press X does not accept your manuscript you may have to find another line of work after dedicating all those years to study and scholarship. Thanks, fuckhead!

NOTA: next year, I'm TOTALLY gonna be that guy! Or not...ha.

Doctor J said...

John, I like magazines but not scones.

What's the title of your book? Can I pre-order?

jdrabinski said...

Sorry, that cut off the last one, for some reason.

7. Adorno's Negative Dialectics.

SAYS: I hate you, so I'm ruining your life and bookshelf with this completely insane book. Don't worry, I hate myself, which is why I ruined my own bookshelf with this li'l gem.

MEANS: I hate you, so I'm ruining your life and bookshelf with this completely insane book.

NOTA: they always miss that last part. I love Adorno because I hate you AND me!

jdrabinski said...

Leigh, the pre-order is a big discount on a hugely expensive hardcover (hard to get paperbacks published these days, actually). The title is Godard Between Identity and Differen (Continuum). Yay! Will be done on 7 January.

Nice of you to ask!

kgrady said...

Well, I'm pretty sure that my general air of presumed superiority has consigned every book I've ever gifted to the "I'm so much smarter than you" heap, so I've pretty much given up on giving books that aren't either explicitly requested or clearly books that I am too smart to have bothered reading myself.

One of my last attempts, though, was also one of my most disastrously comical. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Derrida, and whenever my parents would ask me about it, well, let's just say it ended badly. Things only got worse when they asked to read it. So finally, as a way of saying "Look, if you think I'm hard to understand, check this out and you'll see why," I gave them a copy of Given Time. It said: "Not only am I so much smarter than you, but you give crappy presents...and I will not be participating in Christmas this year."

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...


This reminds me that this year I am only giving counterfeit coins and leaving the rest to chance.

Doctor J said...


Of course, you mean you are only "giving" counterfeit coins.

Brooke said...

This Christmas I'm going to be guilty of perpetuating the age-old tradition of "gift-giving gone wrong."

Apparently I am 1/14 Cherokee, or some ridiculously obscure percentage. To my paternal grandmother, this means a lot, because she has romanticized ideas about Native Americans and the Trail of Tears and all that. (And when I say romanticized, I mean VERY romanticized. She has those kinds of Cowboy-and-Indians pictures you can only find in the South, the ones that come close to a Kinkaid-type historical fiction on canvas.) Since I study an indigenous group in Siberia, she figures this is close enough, harboring a hope that one day I'll learn Cherokee and do research in the Carolinas.

Now being a cultural anthropologist, I have tons of friends who do fieldwork among the Navajo, Sioux, Lakota and yes, Cherokee. In some cases, they have become the blood brothers of their host brothers on reservations and the like. I sometimes hear the nitty-gritty details of the cultural and linguistic debates that go on across generations, how Pow-Wow performance and costuming has changed even over the past decade, how economies on some of the reservations are struggling, etc. from these friends of mine. And as you can imagine, they do not even come close to my grandmothers' understanding of all things "Indian."

So I've decided I'm going to be a well-meaning yet bubble-of-romanticism-popping granddaughter this Christmas and give my grandmother a book of short memoirs written by people belonging to various groups about growing up Native American in the United States. Part of me feels like she's going to hate it because it's not an illustrated encyclopedia of "tribes" written by some obscure second-rate white historian, but another part of me feel like I may be pleasantly surprised by an enthusiastic (or at least curious) response from her. Let's hope it's the latter!!!

I figure, if I have to be preached to about evangelical Christian moral values and meet (albeit increasingly mild) opposition to my academic interests in shamanism, I should have the right to preach back some values of my own: cultural relativism and the importance of ethnography, memoirs, and oral history.

Does this make me a bad person? lol

Chet said...

please, no Derrida gift jokes.

Brooke said...

P.S. My grandmother not only LOVED her book, but apparently she has had her eye on it for quite some time. My faith has been restored.

Brooke said...

P.S. My grandmother not only LOVED her book, but apparently she has had her eye on it for quite some time. My faith has been restored.