The Intimacy of Book-Giving: Just Give Me Underwear

canstockphoto16137550It’s a phrase I’ve said repeatedly in my lifetime: “Give gifts that people want, not what you want them to have.” I received two books as gifts recently and had two entirely different reactions.

I unwrapped the first book and sat there stunned for just a moment. A thousand thoughts ran through my mind, including “You hate me, you really, really hate me.” I was struck how out of proportion my mental reaction was, but that is the nature of my relationship with books. They are such a part of who I am, as a reader, as a writer, as a human, that I can’t imagine anyone would think one book was as good as any other.

The book I received was an inspirational tome by the mother of a child who had died from a rare disease. I stared at the gift-giver as if she’d just given me something with “Oprah’s Book Club” stamped on the cover. There’s nothing in my personality that suggests I like Thomas Kinkade, Hallmark or Chicken Soup for the Soul. I don’t have tear-stained copies of the The Notebook or The Fault in Our Stars in my reading stacks. While I can feel deeply for a bereft mother, I do not read for sentimentality’s sake.

The gift-giver doesn’t really know me and certainly did not know that she just gave me the equivalent of a package of Granny Panties. Although they’re mighty comfy on occasion and make good cat barf rags at the end of their usefulness, I do not want to receive them from a relative stranger in a room full of people. This is the same person who gave me a Prince Charles’ tome on the future of mankind several years ago. A thong with pretty pictures.

I was writing to a friend this morning about book recommendations and it struck me how very personal it is and how reluctant I am sometimes to offer up ideas. There is a level of intimacy, because you know very well you are going to recommend something they may not like. And if they ever tell you that, it will hurt just a little. And part of you will wonder about the veracity of your friendship.

There were several friends of mine who raved about 50 Shades of Grey. I don’t know that I’ve ever looked at them the same way again. Yet sometimes when I read negative reviews of a book that I liked, I get enraged, as if someone had just insulted my mother. And you can often see in the comments that people have taken personal umbrage to the review, to the point of online wedgie-giving.

canstockphoto6437376This is part of the reason why I don’t write book reviews. The book that was poorly edited, full of sentimental manipulation, with characters I’d like drawn and quartered – that book touched someone’s heart, comforted them while they were going through emotional turmoil, allowed them to escape for a moment from the anxieties of their life. There were, for a few moments, no bills to be paid, no pictures to cut out faces from, no squalling child in need of something. Who knows what a book I loathed, meant to someone else?

From a literary standpoint, I don’t pretend to have high standards. I like a good story with complex characters and I don’t care if it’s Toni Morrison or Nicholas Sparks (uh, maybe not) as long as they write a world I can sink into with rhythm and language that keeps me there. But what draws me in might be something that reminds me of a comforting moment as a child or visually links me to a place where I felt happy. The character might remind me of a boy I was once madly in love with or someone who never got their comeuppance.

canstockphoto8858462What we read, what we love to read, what we want to read, is as complex and reflective of our humanity as what we like in music or fragrance. It’s incredibly personal and intimate. I have found that it is also a reflection of our relationships. The first book I received during the holidays was from someone for whom mutual dislike is discernible. The book felt like an act of contempt, although it was likely a thoughtless throwaway attempt at being generous.

The second book I received was from a friend over coffee. We’ve talked about books often, have known each other for several years and she’s in my ring of favorite people. She gave me a book that she had read and really enjoyed. It made her laugh. She knows my sense of humor and thought I would enjoy it as well. It was an entirely different experience, as intimate as a hug without having my space invaded or being imprinted with a scent.

Scanstockphoto20612705ometimes I think I’m a very hardhearted person, that I should be grateful that I’ve been given anything. I’ll smile and say thank you, even while wondering if Half Priced Books will give me any money for the book I’ve just had foisted on me. Giving a book to someone just because you know he or she reads books is akin to giving a knife from Target to a professional chef. Unless you’re already familiar with their kitchen, you are likely giving them something that they’ll re-gift in the coming year.

Socks. Just get them socks.

Right now I’m lost in pure entertainment, having tracked down used copies of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series. I’m reading Stories to be Read with the Door Locked. When we’d visit my grandparents, I’d sneak off to the den and read everything on their bookshelves. They had all the Alfred Hitchcock dime store paperbacks. That’s also where I read the horrifying Helter Skelter (that’s a post for another day called Inappropriate Things I Read as a 10-Year-Old).

I’ve shown you mine, now you show me yours…

58 Comments on “The Intimacy of Book-Giving: Just Give Me Underwear

  1. You were exposed to a different sort of bad writing as a child. I fell into the Barbara Cartland universe–much to my later chagrin as an adult. I did so want to grow up to be a wasp-waisted, big-eyed, blonde with a fetish for improbable princes hiding in imaginary countries. They were like ubiquitous tighty whities–interchangeable and without a noticeable difference from pair to pair.

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    • That was me and every English murder mystery ever. I gobbled up Agatha Christie, PD James, Ruth Rendell and over the last few years, Elizabeth George (a wonderfully competent American writer of English mysteries). I still enjoy reading them from time to time. Aging is wonderful in that you can now re-read mysteries, because you forgot who dunnit the first time around.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I remember Barbara Cartland! The Queen of the Ellipsis! I think she wrote one about a very fat rich common girl who got married off to a very good looking but impoverished duke, and was so devastated by his look of contempt at the sight of her chubby form that she fell into some sort of swoon that lasted MONTHS, during which she lost all her flab. She re-emerged wasp-waisted and big-eyed and, of course, he fell … in love … with her…

      If she didn’t write it I should. I can’t be the only fatty for whom this is the ultimate romance story!

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      • To my utter dismay I can report that I read every single Barbara Cartland novel available at my library when I was a girl. That said, it is entirely possible she wrote (cloned) additional works after I graduated (read: wised up). I’m thinking we need to invent an awards category for most improbable and insulting romance ever written. We’ll call them the Cartland’s and the trophy will be a wasp-waisted girl with flowing blond hair. (Barbie on a stick should do it.)
        ๐Ÿ™‚

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        • I think that’s an excellent idea! Can Barbie be made of chocolate?
          Also, if you have retained any of your adolescent taste for romance, one person I still find thoroughly enjoyable is Georgette Heyer. Funny, atypical heroines, and no dots required…:)

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  2. My son received two books from me this holiday. One all about Banh Mi sandwiches and another on Physics. Two things I know he is crazy for. Like many people who have a hard time choosing something for that person who seems to have everything, I rely on books to make gift giving personal and practical. Oh, and socks. Those too work every time.
    Note to self: bookstore gift cards for readers who I don’t hate.

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    • Reference books are the bomb and really, a safe territory for gift-giving if you truly know a person’s interests. It’s a substantially different experience getting a book from someone who really knows you than from someone who doesn’t. I’m sure I seem like a bit of a prick, but I was even a little surprised by my visceral reaction because the book was so opposite anything I would be interested in.

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      • Not a prick at all. I have the same reaction when someone gives me gift sets with stinky body sprays. I think, what the hell are they trying to say?

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        • That’s another gift that just about kills me – fragrant body products. Since I’m both scent-sensitive and environmentally/animal cruelty concerned, it is usually much unappreciated.

          Although someone sent me some awesome Italian bar soap a couple of years ago that was a wonderful luxury…

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        • Well, that person must be intuitive and thoughtful.

          One year everyone in our family asked me what they should give my husband for Christmas. I told each person he’d like black socks. That year when we all got together he unwrapped nothing but black socks. No one ever asked me for gift advice again. HA!

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  3. That’s exactly why I don’t give books as presents to other than my grandkids oldest of whom is 4. Your advice is spot on. Everyone else gets socks. Btw, I’m reading a terrific book right now, which I think you’d like ๐Ÿ˜€

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      • Ok…I’m reading “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor. It’s not my usual fiction/mystery, but a very intriguing book where a Harvard brain scientist describes her personal journey after having a massive stroke in her 30s. She has recovered completely. Never read anything like that.

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        • Excellent. I’ll add it to my “list” which now resembles a book unto itself. I think I would like to read it – I’m always interested in the workings of the human brain, especially from the perspective of a scientist. Thanks Helen!

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  4. It really does depend on the giver, doesn’t it? Each year for Christmas and my birthday, my husband gives me half a dozen books. Books he thinks I might enjoy, books that he has no interest in reading himself. In nearly 30 years, he has given me TWO duds. This summer when we were in a bookstore together, he handed me a book, saying, “you might like this.” Without looking at it, I put it in my pile. Friends of mine will be calling in the next week to ask what he gave me — because they usually read and love them too. So in one sense, John has a harem!

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    • Literary polygamy.

      Since I read so much and so widely, very few people have a shot at getting it right. I’ve got a bit of a book safari mentality though – it’s always more pleasurable if I “discover” it myself in the library or bookstore. I’m not sure why that is. I do love a good pair of socks, though.

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  5. Loved this – laughed out loud several times. A sentiment I share, though not quite as strongly, and fantastically described. Thanks for sharing…and I’m keeping my eyes open for some really lovely pairs of socks so I’ll have a stash ready for next Christmas…H xxx

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    • Glad you got a laugh out of it. I’m sure I seem rather strident in my perspective but, by the end of the post, I was laughing at myself! I love nothing more than a great pair of socks in which to be cozy while reading, of course. Have a great new year!

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  6. So interesting that you feel this way. I love sharing my books – have a horrible habit of lending them and forgetting where they went, so I have to keep buying replacements. And I am so enjoying writing very brief reviews on my blog. Quite often, when I’ve really enjoyed a book, I find myself really HOPING someone will stumble upon the review (for some stupid reason you can’t put tags on pages, so it would have to be serendipity that took them there) because I think a good book should get all possible help getting out there. That said … yes, sometimes you open a gift and the only appropriate response is “WTF?”

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    • I tend not to share books, for the very reason you mentioned – if they were books I loved, inevitably I’d have to get replacements for them when they weren’t returned. I enjoy reading book reviews. I would not enjoy writing them, being all too aware of my own fallibility as a writer.
      As for gift-giving, I am already aggrieved by the massive overkill of the holiday, but the thought that someone just wasted money on a gift they had no clue whether or not I’d like, well, it just bugs me.

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      • I find that, largely through indolence and lack of organization, I have drifted out of the Christmas present habit. The panic-stricken rush to Find Shitte makes me miserable! So … when I bake my Christmas cake, I make a few extra for those friends who enjoy it, and since my stepkids won’t have anything to do with me I have made Himself responsible for getting gifts for the grandchildren (so they get gift cards rather than anything personal, oh well). And that’s it. Birthdays are more meaningful on a personal level … If I care for you enough to buy you a birthday present, you have ARRIVED!

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        • This year, I cut down a lot on gift-giving and it made the season more enjoyable. I really am in the mood to create, so gifts this year will be of the homemade variety. I am usually a practical gift giver, although I have received some very lovely sentimental gifts. My favorite gifts over the last year have been drawings, homemade cards and photos. Oh and one not homemade gift – an excellent writing pen from my husband.

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  7. As the saying goes, it’s the thought that counts, but in the case of your first gifter it is hard to say whether that was thoughtful or thoughtless. I’ll go with the latter if the person has a brain at all. Your analogy of the knife for the chef is spot on, cut right to the point.

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    • I often hear that expression, but honestly, I don’t believe much thought goes into many gifts these days. I see people shopping like they’re preparing for the apocalypse, tossing last minute gifts in their carts that they might need. There’s no doubt I have a lot of bah-humbuggery going through my veins at this time of year, but I cringe at the level of wasteful consumerism. Maybe books are my line in the sand.

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      • Every holiday brings visions of “Theory of the Leisure Class” dancing in my head. No sugar plums in sight for the plebs like me to delight.

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  8. This made me chuckle with recognition. At this point in life I’d rather not receive gifts at all! I constantly battle that ungrateful feeling of “how could you give this to me; you must hate me; you don’t know me at all; what a waste of plastic and space; next time just please give me a gift card so I can buy books or music or fabric.” It feels so empty and silly to give and receive gifts out of obligation just because it’s the holidays. A gift given with love and knowledge of somebody–like the book from your friend–is a rare and beautiful thing.

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    • I can be an ungrateful gift recipient, but all the more so because I spend so much time either making or tracking down special gifts or at least thinking about what would be useful and used. After years of receiving gifts as pro forma that have little to do with me, I am definitely in the camp that I’d rather receive nothing at all or instead a picture of someone’s family or a poem or something that has sentimental value.

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  9. Fabulous post. I just shared it on my Facebook page. I used to occasionally get recommendations and even gifts of books like you’re describing. So uncomfortable especially after I gave my sentimentality and didacticism talk haha.

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    • Thanks Luanne and for the vicarious Facebook posting. I got my first vicarious Facebook slam from one of your readers for being snobbish and holier-than-thou. It stung a bit, but now I feel a little bit proud of it. I’m doing something right or at least enough so that someone disagrees with me.
      I would have liked to hear your talk on sentimentality and didacticism – it sounds right up my alley.

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      • I just saw it and commented to her. I think you pressed her buttons for sure! Be proud for sure!
        Ah, the twin devils of reading/writing. Anything that forces the reader to feel a certain way and doesn’t allow her to arrive at her own conclusions. That said, there is an old overly sentimental poem about a dog called Rags that did make me cry years ago . . . . Much like the ASPCA commercials on TV.

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        • I wonder if I haven’t become more cynical with age – attempts to manipulate readers or viewers seem so transparent to me now. It often ruins books or movies. I remind myself that if a story is good, it doesn’t need to convince readers to feel a certain way. Really great stories leave an aftertaste – they have to simmer in the mind awhile before you really know what you feel about it.

          That being said, I confess that those talent show auditions get me on occasion – all that fake shock that some schmoe turns out to have fantastic talent. We all have our soft spots…

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        • Sometimes I think I get softer as I get older. Which makes no sense. That said, I have such a distrust of reality shows! Yes, so fake. But I understand that the Cinderella story aspect of the talent shows is what really draws people in.

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  10. It’s such an intimate thing, reading. Giving a book is like saying, “I know your mind.” I’m just finishing Portnoy’s Complaint. I can’t imagine giving this to anyone. Ever. Though I find it terrificly funny.

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    • I once made a recommendation for a movie to some friends. It was an extraordinarily crass and profane movie that I found hysterically funny at the time. I swear they didn’t speak to me for weeks after they watched it.
      One of the few times I recommended a book I loved and made the mistake of asking how it was. My friend made a face and said something like “it didn’t resonate with me”. Seriously, who wants to risk that? Too personal, too risky…

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  11. So many times I’ve received books that made me scratch my head. But nothing tops the book my mother-in-law re-gifted me a few years ago: A book on quilting. I don’t quilt. And this past Christmas? A book on cupcakes. I don’t bake, either. (maybe she’s trying to tell me something?)

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    • For years, I would get hand towels from in-laws. I’m not sure what the message was there, but we’ll never have a shortage in this household. I suspect people just grab stuff off of shelves with this personal, intimate thought “She’s a lady, maybe she’ll like this.” Although in the case of a mother-in-law, there might be a message: save this is for my son’s next wife. My mother-in-law wants a wife for her son who loves acrylic. Every single year.

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  12. Whenever I go to the bookstore to shop for presents, I only succeed in finding books that I want to read. I stopped trying to guide others toward reading books I’ve enjoyed because it’s such a letdown when they don’t have the same degree of enjoyment I did. I give gift cards or booze.

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    • Sometimes I’ve convinced myself that I’m really going into a bookstore for a gift, but it’s always a big, fat lie. I will walk out with a stack of books for me and gift cards for everyone else. I suspect it would be the same at the liquor store.
      It’s fun when you discover that you enjoyed the same book as someone else, but that rarely happens through a personal recommendation. And then there’s the unspoken pressure. Did you read it yet? What did you think? And then the let down…

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m probably the weirdest reader ever. I love to read journals: May Sarton, Thomas Merton, Doris Grumbach, Henri Nouwen. Yeah, pretty boring. John

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  14. Interesting post, Michelle! I saw it on Luanne’s FB page and was intrigued. You sure sparked conversation – always a good thing as far as I’m concerned! Love receiving anything from thoughtful givers – even if they get it wrong. But as sooooo with you on the please give something you think I’ll like, not what you’d like me to have OR what you’d like to have!

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    • I didn’t imagine this post would incite as much conversation as it did, but I’m enjoying it. Although it makes me want to shout “hey, just because I don’t like books for gifts doesn’t make me a jerk!”. Phhhhtttt. Sensitive writers, what can you do?
      I’ve been given religious tomes, sparkly hand towels, body lotions that smell like they could strip the paint off a shed and knickknacks for the Hummel collection I do not have.
      While I understand that it’s the thought that counts, it is obvious that very little thought was given. It’s more a “I like this, so she will too” deal. Part of me feels badly that they’ve spent the money on something I will not like. I mean, nobody in my family circle can really afford to do that.
      I don’t think there’s an art to gift-giving, but it does take a little effort to pay attention to someone’s interests and style. And honestly, most of us don’t need more stuff – this is why sentimental cards or pictures or poems are the things I enjoy the most. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment – that’s always a gift I enjoy receiving!

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  15. What a remarkable revelation this post was to me! I am not used to liking any gifts I receive, but I have to say that between getting a book or getting socks, I would far prefer the book. Receiving socks, to me, is the giver saying “Who cares about YOU?” At least with the book, you have a chance of returning it. So very surprising to read the comments and learn that others also truly appear to enjoy receiving socks as gifts. Good grief.

    All you said made perfect sense–I, too, thought the knife analogy was perfect!–but after I thought some more realized: I have rarely liked ANY of the gifts I’ve received. I have always had a small, and currently miniscule, social circle. You would think, therefore, that these people would know me intimately, but gift-giving occasions reveal otherwise.

    I am betting some cartoonist has already done the Inadequate Gift-Choosing Flowchart:

    Are they more acquaintance than friend? Yes. Get them a gift card.
    Do they collect something? Yes. Get them more of it.
    Do they have a hobby? Yes. Get them anything to do with it.
    Do they have a furry friend? Get them anything to do with it.
    Are they “quirky”? Yes: Get them something “odd” (e.g. Doe-eyed hippo.)
    Do they wear earrings/pendants/bangles? Yes. Get them some.
    Do they wear a tie? Get them one (e.g. Tiny Hamburglars.)
    Do they have feet? Yes. Get them socks.
    Are they footless? Yes. (Return to step “Get them a gift card”.)

    Store-bought food gifts may instead be substituted as gifts for acquaintances and home-baked food gifts (or items that purport to be so) for friends.

    Re: Your knife analogy, Stephanie took the words from my mouth and made them punnier.

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    • I don’t know how to explain it, except to say what I started with, in that having someone pick out a book for me is akin to someone picking out underwear (with less of an ick factor). Apparently, I am an ungrateful wretch, but I guess I can live with that. Maybe it’ll save some people a little money and time next year as they cross me off their list. I plan on being very naughty this year, anyway.

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      • No, no, either you took me wrong or I wasn’t clear, and most likely the latter. I am irked that my intimates can be so thick-headed. How hard can it be? Even now, in my ridiculously-reduced-and-cramped circumstances, I have a library. LOOK at it. Any books on philosophy? NO. (Happen to think it’s men doing a big circle-jerk about their own self-inflated “Big Thoughts”.) I have art on my walls; decorative items on display–Do YOU see any goofy, goofy battery-powered tumbling monkeys?

        I AGREE with everything you said, Michelle. Books illustrate more than any other gift can the distance between how much you think someone knows you, or should, and how much they do. But I just feel the distance in all gifts.

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        • I agree with what you said, too, so how’s that for a big social media misunderstanding circle jerk? I am perchance feeling slightly defensive since the old wisdom is that one should feel grateful for a gift, any gift, even if it’s the most inappropriate, ill-suited, ugly, thoughtless gift in the world. I’m glad to discover I’m not the only one for whom gift-receiving is about having a game face.

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  16. (As if this horse hasn’t been beaten enough!) Just wanted to explicitly applaud your naughtiness plan! You may want to see if the Unrepentant Curmudgeons have a Meetup group in YOUR area ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  17. You’ve really got inside my head now! Every time someone gets an odd gift, all I will see are granny panties. Very funny.

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  18. Oh. My. Gosh. This is my second comment in 20 minutes and, while that may seem obsessive, it’s like you’ve seen inside my brain! How you manage to put all this into words I have no idea, but keep at it, please.

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  19. Full agreement from me! Even (or especially?) those closest to me are almost never going to get books from me, nor do I want any from them, for all of these same reasons. With a few notable exceptions, of course, but oh-so-rarely.

    Lucky you, to have found all of those Hitchcock classics. My parents weren’t too fussy, apparently, ’cause we grew up with already-scruffy copies of those delightful AHP paperbacks and reread them practically to pieces. Good times. ๐Ÿ˜€ Have fun with them!!!

    Kathryn

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    • I think that people who have a strong connection with books or who recognize someone who does, generally will know better than to attempt them as a gift. But it’s been pointed out to me that these gifts may be genuine in their intent. I do try to be gracious when receiving them, but the fact that they’re usually off the mark makes them a loaded gift. I don’t read for the sake of reading and I don’t keep books just because someone gave them to me (except if they are books I really do like), so it feels like a waste.

      I love the Hitchcock stories and some of them were written by some well-known writers (Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Roald Dahl, Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov). They’re perfect for reading before bed, since I usually can only make it through one story before conking out! Some of those stories stuck in my head long after childhood.

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