1. You don’t know them well enough. Period.
When I went through a painful period of loss, a well-meaning acquaintance gave me a book that had helped her through a hard time. It was Chicken Soup for the Soul. Anyone who knows me knows this just made me cry harder.
Rule of thumb: if you don’t really know someone, you can’t know their taste, so even a book you adored may be inappropriate. Much of this list boils down to “You don’t know them well enough”, actually, but there are some specific scenarios to watch for.
2. You don’t know them well enough romantically.
A friend had been dating a fellow for two months when his birthday arose. Birthdays early into relationships are tricky – the balance of personal and thoughtful versus too intimate or expensive is a delicate one. She chose to give him a copy – HER copy, in fact – of her favorite love story, Harold and Maude by Colin Higgins. It’s a romance between a morbid young man obsessed with dying (he attends strangers’ funerals and fakes his own death) and a vibrant, exuberant 79-year old woman living to the fullest. My friend found it beautiful, meaningful and romantic.
Her paramour, when asked how he’d enjoyed the book, shrugged uncomfortably. He had found it “kind of creepy and gross” and not finished it.
My friend loved that book so well that she was taken aback by his response, and given pause. I’m not saying it was Harold and Maude’s fault that they fizzled out shortly afterward, but you never know. Perhaps a book given romantically can actually be a good litmus test, when used judiciously.
3. You don’t know them well enough politically.
Better to err on the side of caution, mixing politics and pleasure. Politics is often something not discussed much among casual friends, and it can be difficult to gauge a person’s beliefs. Don’t assume. Otherwise, you may find them staring at you in horror when they unwrap Stephen Colbert’s I am America! And So Can You, or conversely, The Christmas Sweater by Glenn Beck.
4. They’re a huge book nerd, and have read everything. Twice.
Some people consume books like the rest of us consume oxygen. They manage to read while sleeping, driving, giving birth, ice skating, cooking. Voracious does not begin to describe it. These are the people to whom it is VERY DANGEROUS to give books. Always keep the receipt, and try not to take it personally when four out of five books given result in an apologetic face and an “I’ve read this, I’m sorry… it was really good, though!”
Better to just give them a gift certificate.
5. While you wish they did, they just don’t like books.
Remember when you were a teenager, and wore whatever your era’s version of terrible fashion was (mine: ripped jeans, oversized flannel shirts, rainbow hair, combat boots), and your parents would give you clothes, smiling pleadingly, hoping you might actually consider wearing a nice blazer and decent skirt? Yeah. That doesn’t work. Similarly, if someone limits their reading to Cosmopolitan or WWE Smackdown, giving them books to try to make a reader of them won’t go over well. They’ll be unimpressed at best, insulted at worst, and the book will end up in the closet – next to the blazer and skirt.