Suggestions Please: Gifts for Those Who Read (And Maybe Those Who Just Pretend)


A recent article from the Wall Street Journal Online details gifts for those seeking “High I.Q. Décor.” Apparently people buy skulls (for that Hamlet moment we all have sooner or later I guess) or books by the foot. Yes, you read that correctly: books by the foot a.k.a. “insta-libraries”:

sales of insta-libraries, including editions in French and German, are up 140% this year. “I’m not sure if those folks knew how to read those languages,” says Ms. Wyden [a specialist in books by the foot] of some recent customers. Prices range from contemporary fiction for $50 a foot to leather-bound classics for $400 a foot. … [One client] include[s] private-equity king (and board member of the New York Public Library) Stephen Schwarzman and his wife, Christine, who Ms. Wyden says spent $200,000 on books for their Park Avenue triplex, including pastel-colored books for a bedroom antechamber and movie-reference works and academic books for the family room. Through his spokesman, Mr. Schwarzman declined to comment.

The last part of the quote reminds me of scenes in Hannah and Her Sister’s and The Moderns where artist characters must face buyers interested in how much wall space will be covered by a canvas or whether the art matches blue walls. In a further moment of irony the article notes “Not everyone approves of decorating to look brainy. ‘Queer Eye’ interior designer Thom Filicia compares it to wearing eyeglasses without a prescription. ‘It’s creating a façade,’ he says.”

All of which leads to an offer and a request for help. As Christmas approaches and gifts are on the mind I offer a few possible books to buy for those who read or for your own pleasure with gift cards to come. In return I hope that the readership will share the names of books they recommend or books that have received acclaim but may not be so worthwhile.

To start things off I recommend my friend John Scalzi’s book Old Man’s War. It’s a science fiction novel, but I believe those who want to enjoy a good story filled with private military companies and more will like it. Don’t take just my word on this one: Instapundit liked it as did Eugene Volokh and Professor Bainbridge . Not to mention it was was nominated for a Hugo Award and won the Campbell Award for best new writer in science fiction. If you want a more recent book of John’s try The Android’s Dream.

For those interested in intellectual history John Gribbin’s In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat and Schrödinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality are both great reads (although I should warn that quantum theory can be most unsettling to one’s view of reality). In addition, I have just started James Landale’s The Last Duel (in part because of confusion about a similar book Kaimi mentioned to me) and have enjoyed the interplay between the specific story of the duel in question and the history of dueling in general.

Last I suggest two all-time favorites: Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes and Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale . Both writers pay close attention to the use of language such that I believe anyone who enjoy’s excellent writing will enjoy them on that score alone. I can also say that each time I have given a copy of either book to someone they have enjoyed it, but Helprin’s work is a bit more accessible, and at least two friends have said they could not stop reading A Winter’s Tale once they began reading it.

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6 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    I’d recommend any books by J.M. Coetzee. _Disgrace_ is probably the most well known and is excellent. That or _Elizabeth Costello_ are likely to hit a bit close to home to at least a few academics. _Waiting for the Barbarians_ was written in the 80’s about a fictional empire but is hard not to read in light of today. All are excellent and not too long. That also makes them nice for academics who have to try to fit in fiction reading between work.

  2. Fraud Guy says:

    I would recommend _The Deed of Paksenarrion_ by Elizabeth Moon. Fantasy, but about moral choices.

  3. Frank says:

    For the economist: Richard Layard, Happiness: LEssons from a New Science

    For the teacher: Richard Lanham, The Economics of Attention

    For the cynic: Daniel Harris, Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism

    For the do-gooder: Grossman, ed., High-Tech Trash

    For the academic: Star, ed., Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca

    For the cultural declinist: Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture

    For the insecure: David English, The Economy of Prestige

    For the fan of academic memoirs: Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper

    For the glamorous: Alex Kuczynski, Beauty Junkies.

  4. Sigivald says:

    I’d never buy books by the foot (if only because I have enough and want enough that I could fill feet of bookshelf without resorting to it), but I’d happily buy art as decor.

    After all, it’s visual. Since it’s For Looking At, it makes sense to ensure that it fits in with the surrounding area, unless you have some specific desire for a specific piece (in which case the rest of the decor can adapt to it).

  5. mollishka says:

    I second the Schrodinger’s Cats and Kittens suggestions; some annoyed teacher lent them to me when I was 11 or 12, and though I didn’t know they related to “physics,” that was how I knew I wanted to do physics.

    And now I go to the bookstore with your suggestions in hand. Thanks!

  6. D McEvoy says:

    Oh get over yourselves. So what if someone wants to decorate with books. You all know that anyone buying a “Three Quarter Morocan Leather Edition in Fine Condition with Gold Gilt Spine and Pages with Marbled Boards and BLAH BLAH BLAH” is buying that book at least as much for its looks as its contents. Not mention that if you even touch a certain rare edition without cotton gloves you are looked as insane by many collectors, imagine if you tried to read the darn thing, you’d likely be beaten by a book worm. The books we buy to read are paper backs. That way if it ends up floating in the tub because you fell asleep you are not out a whole weeks pay. There is nothing wrong with decorating with books, if there was, they wouldn’t make them so darn decorative! The age of fine book binding is for the most part passed. But don’t kid youselves into to thinking those bindings were anything less than decoration and status symbols. If there was never a market for books as decor, they never would have been made that way to begin with and this conversation would not come up. Anyone who says they aren’t pleased with the look of their antiquarian book collection is flat out lying and I’d bet that most of those books are never read again once purchased.

    On an unrelated note, most of you would disagree with me probably drink bottled water and are upset about global warming. Just keep in mind that each year 20,000 metric tons of those bottles end up in land fill. Also 40% of all bottled water is tap water. 70% of all bottled water has more lead, arcenic and chlorine than tap water. For the cost of one up scale litre of bottled water you can get 1500 gallons of municipal water, and no fosil fuels were burned getting it here from Franc, Fiji or Norway. People who think too much and still end up stupid are just plain fun to have around.