A post from Brian Herzog on his blog Swiss Army Librarian raises the question of whether or not it is socially acceptable to read a book before you present it as a gift. This is actually a matter I have considered before and coming out of the Holiday season I think this is an appropriate area of contemplation.
Personally I see no real problem with this, especially considering the gift of a book is often based on a personal opinion (of the gift giver) that the book would be something that the receiver would enjoy. A lot of books that I have given as gifts are books that I have read before, though generally I will buy a new copy as a gift (this is in part because I like to horde my books and also because I like to write a note to the person I am giving the book to inside the cover). I guess you could take the question further and say, “is it okay to buy a book, read it, and then give it to somebody as a gift?” My response . . . sure, why not? I mean as long has you haven’t done significant damage to a copy of a book (essentially as long as it is still readable) then why shouldn’t it be gift worthy?
One might be tempted to say, “because it is a used item.”
Really? Well ask yourself this. 1). Can you really tell? Assuming that the book has not been beat up by the giver’s reading process it is probably kind of difficult to determine whether or not the book was previously read. 2). Isn’t the idea of giving a book as a gift a lot more about the content within? Sure there are some books with nice looking covers and it could be annoying having to deal with previous fold-marked pages (something else I’d like to write about at some point) but really the important thing in a book is that it is readable or that the pictures are still in good condition.
As a rule the books that I give to people are generally things that I have read previously (though not necessarily the exact copy) because then I am in a better position to talk about it and give reasons for why I chose it as a gift. For example, I gave my cousin a copy of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov for Christmas this year. Part of the reason was because she mentioned that she was going to be taking a Russian Literature class at school, but further so because The Brothers Karamazov is one of my all time favorite books (which I happen to believe should be an essential on any list of Russian Literature — actually several of Dostoevsky’s works are worth making the list; The Idiot, Crime & Punishment, and Notes From the Underground to name some of the best). I bought her a new copy of the book, though it was the same translation/publication that I had read previously. On the other hand I give both my brother and father books for Christmas that I had not previously read at all, though I did take a bit of time to glance through them.
I have on occasion given books that I have owned as gifts, though on much more casual terms then say as a wrapped Birthday or Christmas present. There have been times, when through interaction, I have deemed that some people need to be exposed to a certain book that I own, and thus give it to them. An example is when a friend and I, my junior year of college, each exchanged one of our favorite books. I gave her Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and I was given in turn Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (which at the time I had not yet read — which many people still find fascinating).
I could go on and on about giving books as gifts and could expand further on gift giving in general (in fact just the other day I reread a paper I wrote a few years ago on the topic of gift giving and sacrifice). I think that the really interesting and important thing to remember is that a gift is a comment or critique of a type between the giver and the receiver. I don’t have qualms with reading a book before you give it as a gift, but consider the book as a whole and why you want it to be a gift, it is the message of the giving that is probably the thing of real importance.