One of the great pleasures of being an aunt, or a godmother, lies in the giving of presents. Having first made sure you will not be staying in the same house as the tiny poppet over the festive season, there is little to match a musical instrument as the gift of choice for a small person. A drum, obviously, is splendid, but anything that toots and whistles will fit the bill admirably. The weeny recipient will be overjoyed and its parents will rise up and call you blessed. Well, not blessed exactly, but your name will certainly be on their lips.
Infinitely easier to wrap (always an important consideration in the NorthernReader household, where we do not excel in any activities involving precision, neatness and patience: not for us the joys of flower-arranging, sugar-craft or wrestling an odd-shaped item into a pristine carcass of glittery paper), books also offer delight to the giver. Throughout their childhoods, the relentless giving of books to three little boys known to me could be relied upon to trigger thank you letters (and, yes, it will come as no surprise to you that I am a stickler for thank-you letters and yes, I do judge you and your child by whether or not the acquisitive little horror bothers to write one. Don’t look at me like that: of course you can make them. Try a whip and a chair): thank you letters of delicious politeness while still relentlessly sticking to William Brown’s determination to Speak Truth One to Another (‘William’s Truthful Christmas’ in Still William). My all-time favourite of the genre is:
Thank you for the book. I haven’t read it yet but the pictures look alright.
And the really splendid thing is that all three grew up to be nice young men who can read. And they write thank you letters – possibly even unprompted.
But how to choose books to give as presents? Well, you could do a lot worse than asking a professional. You know those ads that implore you to go and talk to your local chemist when you’re feeling ill, and try to remind you that said chemist has gone through years of study and training in her chosen field and just might be up to doing a little bit more than selling you a packet of Strepsils? Well, Proper Book-Sellers are like that too. Not the infants employed on zero-hours contracts in chain-stores, probably – although chance alone dictates that you will come across not only an enthusiast – horribly likely – but an enthusiast who knows what he’s talking about (much rarer). No, trot along to your nearest independent bookshop: and serves you right if that’s a long, long trot these days. We Northern Readers are particularly lucky in this respect. We have the lovely, lovely Cogito Books in Hexham, a little paradise of bookish glory. They’ll help you, too, even if for mysterious reasons that baffle me you have not yet chosen to come and live in this neck of the woods. Their book-ordering service is as splendid as their book-advising service and they have a telephone as well as a website. And don’t forget that the perfect book does not have to be a new book. Go and see what gems you might discover lurking behind the serried ranks of unwanted Jeffrey Archer (and can there be any other sort of Jeffrey Archer?) in your local charity shops. If you are fortunate enough to live within striking distance of Barter Books in Alnwick, of course, a day of bliss is assured – and if you live further away, that’s next year’s holiday sorted.
Don’t fall into the trap of giving your friends and family books about the only thing you know they are interested in. The chances are very high indeed that you will not be the first person in their lives to have fallen upon a copy of Fly-Fishing for Dummies (to take an example more or less at random) with little cries of relief and posted it to them. It will be joining massed ranks of its unread, unopened identical twins. On the other hand, your choice of A Child’s Garden of Verses for a known recidivist violent-and-unpleasantly-military-games-on-a-computer-player might prove a tad optimistic. No, the test of true friendship is to take a deep breath and send them a book you adore, in the hope that they will too. Go the extra mile and write a label explaining why you chose it, and why you think your friend will love it too. Better still, fix a date in the bleak days of winter when the two of you can get together – a dog walk, a cup of hot chocolate – and talk about the book and what else you’ve been reading. You see? Books bring people together. But don’t worry if that’s the last thing you want at this occasionally over-bonhominous time of year: books also still offer the best, the copper-bottomest excuse for being entirely on your own for a while. Ah, curl up with a good book by the wood-burner, test-drive the mince pies and the mulled wine and murmur, ‘Peace on Earth’.