Dear Corn Syrup,
Please help! My family is doing a book exchange this Christmas. Each person drew a name out of a hat, and I picked my new brother-in-law. There are three problems with this. First, I don’t really know anything about him except that he likes beer and offensive jokes. Second, I don’t like beer or offensive jokes. And third, I don’t think that he’s a good fit for my sister, and I wish she didn’t marry him. Any suggestions about a good book to give? Price limit is $30.
How awesome is it that your family has a book exchange!? That fact alone tells me that you come from good people. I certainly understand your impulse to protect your book-loving family and its groovy bookish traditions from a tasteless newcomer.
Giving a book to someone you don’t know (and maybe don’t like) is a problem that a lot of us face. The fact that you’re dealing with this issue at a holiday family gathering makes your predicament all the more complicated. Holiday celebrations usually bring out the worst in every family, even families of readers! All of our lingering grudges about unfairness and stolen possessions and parental favoritism rise like curdled clumps in our eggnog. So my first piece of advice would be to treat the book-giving occasion with the same caution you’d give to a conversation over the holiday meal: no religion, no politics (and in your case, perhaps avoid fiction about sisters who marry evil men). Avoid, at all costs, any book whose title might inspire a showdown between your Uncle Trump and your patchouli-scented cousin who loudly opposes the use of wrapping paper.
But clearly, Grinch, your question is not just about finding the perfect gift for someone you don't know well. You want things to go back to the way they were before your brother-in-law spilled his beer on your family holidays. And, unfortunately, there’s no kind of Christmas magic that can do that. What is in your hands, however, is this fabulous opportunity to give your SISTER a gift this season, the gift of opening yourself up to a friendship with her husband.
Here’s how a book could help you do that. Since you don’t know much about your brother in law, go buy one of those “Best American…” anthologies. There's The Best American Short Stories of 2015, The Best American Essays, The Best American Comics, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and others. Go get one. But don’t just give the book to him. You need to read it first, and pick a favorite story within it (remember – no politics, no religion). When you give him the book, tell him that you especially love one particular story, and then tell him you want to discuss it with him. Over beer.
Who knows if he’ll take you up on the offer, but at the very least, you’ll have the knowledge that you handled yourself with grace. It’s also truly possible that this book will inspire a real conversation between the two of you. And wouldn’t that be amazing? Perhaps you’ll find that your heart grows three sizes that day.