Did you ever stop to think why a certain book has been chosen for you? Out of the thousands of books on offer when your friend/relation was choosing, why this one? Indeed, why did they get you a damn book in the first place? You like books – great, but who doesn’t? Everyone likes music, everyone likes games – they could have bought you a Bert Kaempfert CD or a Pope Francis vs. Mother Teresa computer game (think Alien vs. Predator) – but no, they got you a book. You want to know why? Because when you get a book, you’re not getting a present. You’re getting a message.
People give books to each other for one reason only: to avoid confrontation. Giving a book allows them to say something they can’t say to your face. Let’s take a simple example – my friend has a female boss with a severe body odour problem – she smells bad, really bad – this is used diapers meets dead fish meets Polish railway station bad. How can you tell your boss that she smells bad? You can’t. So you buy a book that does the job for you – in this case, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume.
With so many titles out there, you’ll never have to endure ugly tete á tetes ever again. Another friend is attracted to a fellow hospital co-worker. Amid all that death and disease, how does she let him know her romantic inclinations? Hmm… this one had me stumped, but eventually it was obvious – what says ‘let’s have a sex standing up in a medical supply cupboard’ better than Love In The Time Of Cholera? The power of books! They bring people together! Yet… use their power wisely, as they can also break people up. Back in college I was dating a woman who started to put on an enormous amount of weight – a French bakery had opened beside her apartment and she was keeping them in business. I don’t mind anyone carrying a few extra pounds but it was starting to get ridiculous – when we were kissing, I had to sit on her knee. The book-as-message option seemed obvious, but looking back I could have been more tactful and not baked a copy of Moby Dick in her birthday cake.
We broke up, not because she took offence from the implied similarity between her weight and Melville’s albino sperm whale, no, it was because she almost choked to death on chapters 1-5.
Minor blips like this aside, nothing gets an awkward message across like a collection of bound pages, protected by a stiff pasteboard cover, adorned by a succinct title – you’ve got a friend who’s a lesbian and doesn’t realise it? Slip a copy of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit into her army backpack and she’ll get the message. A boyfriend in his thirties who won’t propose? Keep it simple and give him a copy of Peter Pan. Grandad still hasn’t moved out and given you his house? Call around and read him a few chapters of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men – hey presto! Before you know it, he’ll be hauling his wrinkly ass off to the nearest euthanasia clinic. Of course this effect is doubled if when you visit Granddad, you carry a gas tank for shooting bolts into peoples heads, a lá Anton Chigurh.
Choose your book carefully – another friend’s teenage daughter had a new handsome male teacher. A warning was needed. For me the best choice would have been Lolita but being a concerned parent, my friend left a copy of How To Castrate A Bull, by Dave Hitz on the bonnet of the teacher’s Mitsubishi Lancer. Too strong a message if you ask me, especially since the teacher turned out to be gay. Of course this method of communication is a two-way thing as I proved to my mother-in-law; when my wife and I were first married, we lived for a time with her parents, perhaps too long as one day my wife’s mother presented me with a copy of Robinson Crusoe. Ah, I understood. The next week, as we were moving out to our new apartment, I thanked my father-in-law and gave his wife a carefully wrapped copy of Stephen King’s Misery.