My template for what Christmas should be was set during the holidays I spent at my grandparents’ farm in eastern Nebraska. My grandparents had nine children and 23 grandchildren, and the gift exchange resulted in a sea of wrapping paper that my cousins and I would wade through, a bow on every baby’s head.

Sometimes you ended up with a gift that you didn’t actually like — one relative used to always give my cousin and I who are the same age the exact same sweater, even though I was twice my cousin’s size. She would swim in the sweater, while I would be encased like a sausage. Or somebody would give me a doll that wasn’t the exact one I would have chosen if I’d been allowed to pick one at the store. But slightly-off gifts didn’t really matter — more often than not, the perfect present was something I never thought I wanted.

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Print books still rule as gifts

Cut to a possible vision of Christmas 2011: The family sits in a tidy living room. There are no books, CDs or magazines cluttering it. At the appointed time, the family exchanges gift cards for digital amusements, each person passing a piece of plastic worth $25 of goods or services to the person on his left — kind of like those food pellets the Jetsons ate, except these are gift pellets. There’s no wrapping paper chaos or bows for the babies. Later, everyone will retreat to his or her room to use the gift cards on downloads of books, music and movies to enjoy privately. OK, that’s an exaggeration. My house will never be Dwell Magazine-clean.

But the ever-increasing prominence of all-digital media does pose a problem for gift-giving: How do you give something so intangible a personal touch? The answer is, sometimes you just can’t.

I give a lot of books for Christmas, because in each generation one woman must assume the title of That Weird Aunt Who Always Gives Us Books. At used bookstores, you find the ghosts of these aunts’ Christmas pasts: picture books inscribed with love to Billy, from Aunt Betty. I’ve taken up that mantle for my nieces and nephews. But I knock myself out to give books that the recipient will enjoy — not thesauruses and dictionaries, as I received from the woman who played this role in my childhood. (Though honestly, at 12, I was pretty psyched about the thesaurus. I still have it.)

Every year, I give my dad and two brothers each a book and a case of beer. I put a lot of thought into the books, and some thought into the beer, maybe more than necessary given that my dad just prefers Coors to the fancy Colorado microbrews I present him with each year. My brothers have Kindles and iPhones, and these days, they probably do more digital reading than printed book reading. But I don’t just want to give them an iTunes or Amazon gift card that they can use for books if they choose. I want to visit the Tattered Cover or the Boulder Book Store and pick out the perfect book for each of them.

personalizing the impersonal

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Is it possible to personalize the gift of an e-book? I asked Arsen Kashkashian, head buyer at the Boulder Book Store, if he had any ideas, and he was as stumped as I am. “I’m not sure what the best way to personalize an e-book would be,” he said. His store and many other independent bookstores sell Google e-books, which are usually the same price as e-books available for Kindle, and can be used on multiple platforms. But you can’t use a store gift certificate to purchase them because buying the e-book is a transaction with Google, and Google doesn’t accept indie bookstore gift cards. Currently, there isn’t a way to give an e-book as a gift from most independent bookstores.

It is possible to give a Kindle e-book as a present from Amazon. According to Amazon’s FAQ on the subject, you don’t need to own a Kindle to give someone a Kindle e-book gift: “Kindle books can be given and received by anyone with an e-mail address.” You can schedule the date the e-book gift is delivered to the recipient, and if the recipient isn’t happy with your selection, he or she can exchange it for another.

As for Barnes & Noble’s Nook books, you can’t give someone a specific Nook book, but you can give them a Barnes & Noble gift card to purchase Nook books, or you can lend a Nook book from one reader to another. Although you can give a friend specific songs from iTunes, that isn’t possible yet for iBooks — the only way to give an iBook is through an iTunes gift card or certificate. It’s all a little confusing, because each type of e-book and e-reader has its own rules. Last month, Open Road Media launched a website with instructions on how to give e-books from Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and the Sony Reader Store.

Still, these digital transactions via email feel a little chilly to me. One year I gave someone a subscription to Netflix, and almost a year later I received an email that said the person never used the credit that was about to expire, which made me feel like I had never given them a gift at all.

The physical book is still king

I spoke with Cathy Langer, lead buyer at the Tattered Cover, who said, “I contend that even if people have e-readers, they want to give a physical book, because it’s so impersonal giving e-books. And this was actually proven with several customers I’ve helped.”

I told her that I am leaning toward giving actual books to friends and family that have e-readers, and she said that my thoughts on this subject are typical. “I’ve been predicting almost since last Christmas that I’m not afraid of the holiday season. People ordering off of Amazon has cut into our business to some extent, no matter what. But even though people are getting e-readers for Christmas and Hanukkah, when someone wants to give a gift of a book, they want to give the gift of a physical book. Even though there are e-readers in millions of households, the gift-giving vehicle is still the physical book.”

Langer gave some examples of how this dynamic has played out among customers at the Tattered Cover that she’s helped. “I had a customer who wanted two copies of ‘Ready Player One’ [by Ernest Cline], which is a futuristic, hip novel from Random House that was big this fall. He said, ‘I read it on my Kindle, and I loved it, so I want to give it as gifts.’”

It’s almost as if the e-book has become the lower-priced preview mechanism for readers who might then go onto buy the physical book for themselves or others.

And for kids, although there are some wonderful interactive e-book programs, printed books still are the rule. Langer said, “A couple days ago, there was a little girl — maybe 5 years old — traipsing through the store with her grandfather, and they were talking about a book. He said, ‘Well, we can get that for you on your Kindle,’ and she said, ‘No, Grandpa, I want a real book.’”

Langer said, “Giving books as gifts is a very strong, personal statement. It’s an object of love and affection and real meaning. It’s an object rather than just a commodity of words.”

I agree — for this year, I’m sticking with printed books for gifts. In future years, who knows? But as long as no one invents digital beer, there will always be some presents under the Christmas tree.

Photo of books by erin_everlasting on Flickr and photo of Amazon certificates by Zlatko Unger on Flickr. Both used here with Creative Commons license.

Jenny Shank is the is the author of the novel “The Ringer” (The Permanent Press, 2011), a finalist for the Reading the West Book Awards. Her fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Poets & Writers Magazine, Bust, Dallas Morning News, High Country News and The Onion.


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