Discover more from Hold That Thought by Sarah Haider
The Best Gift
Welcome to a new “section” of this Substack—essentially a mini-newsletter housed within a newsletter. I wanted a space where I could post the less polished, more personal stuff, and wanted to give you guys the freedom to opt in-or-out independently.
I couldn’t think of a snappy name. So it is called, boringly, “Sarah Haider’s Blog”.
I grew up Muslim so never really celebrated the gift-giving aspect of Christmas until adulthood. Now that I think of it, there aren’t many personalized gift-giving holidays in Islam. There is Eid-ul-Fitr, in which younger people receive money from older people, and Eid-ul-Adha, in which people sacrifice an animal and then send choice cuts to family and friends—but nothing like the personalized giving of Christmas. (Is this strange? Or is Christmas strange?) I did, of course, receive gifts on my birthday as a child, but no one does that with adult birthdays, so sadly that too has come to an end.
But I love gift-giving and receiving, and wish I had more excuses to do it. I love that giving gifts forces me to think deeply about another person, to consider what might bring them joy, and to anticipate their enjoyment. I’m too scatterbrained to do that regularly, but every time I stop and meditate on my loved ones, I feel lighter afterwards.
By far my favorite kind of gift to receive is a book, preferably, non-fiction—and these days, in audio form so that I can readily find time to consume it. But although everyone knows this is the kind of gift I love the most, no one gifts me any. Ever!
I can only remember being given two books in my lifetime. One from an old boyfriend—a copy of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in latin (“Winnie Ille Pu”), from the original 1960s print. It wasn’t expensive, but I was delighted by the gesture. He knew I loved Pooh1 and that I took latin seriously because I was a big Rome nerd. (Fun fact: this is the only book in latin that has ever made it to the New York Times bestseller list.)
Then there was the time before that. I was 10 or so, and had completed my first full reading of the Quran. As a gift, a cousin of mine gave me her copy, a large and magnificently-decorated tome, with translations of the Arabic text in Urdu and English. Since I was a believer at the time, I felt this was sure to be a source of profound wisdom, and was thoroughly in awe of it.
That’s it, that’s the list of books this book-lover has received. Woe is me. :(
But now that I think about it, I can think of some good reasons why people might avoid giving me books. First, is the obvious: I already have a small library’s worth, so there is a risk of getting me something I already have.
But I think there is also another. Have you ever shown someone something you think is funny—a video, a movie, a meme—that you think they might like too, but they clearly do not? That feeling of anticipation turning into mild embarrassment as you wait and wait for their face to break out into a chortle or even a smile…but it never comes? No matter how polite they are, or skilled at breaking through the awkwardness—it is always a bit crushing, like a personal rejection.
I think books can carry the same risk, or perhaps, a greater one. Unless you simply grabbed something off the bestseller list, a good book gifting is a deeply personal act, it is something you have read and enjoyed before. Because you found it good enough to share, in the act of giving you are admitting something about yourself. “This sparked a light in me…challenged me…intrigued me,” and you share because you hope the receiver will feel the same. But what if they don’t?
I once recommended a book about the art of writing to a young man I was sort-of mentoring. He read it, but scoffed it off—declaring that he knew everything in it already, and further, that he finds these kinds of “self-help” books to be a waste of time and money. Now, if I wasn’t 1) in a position of superiority 2) a person of remarkably thick skin 3) confident in my own intellect, I might have found his remarks to be more than just insulting—I would find them hurtful. In his rejection, he was implying that my own knowledge or intelligence or skill was limited in a way his was not. And through the act of recommending, I was admitting to being impressed by something decidedly unimpressive. Recommendations are one thing, gifts are far more fraught. You want the receiver to actually enjoy the gift—you’ve spent the money after all—and hopefully to think better of you after. Give a bad clothing item, and one might think you have bad style. Give a bad book, and one might think you are an idiot.
This is partially why I find “top book recommendations” from famous people to be unbelievable and fairly useless. Bill Gates, for example, is brilliant and reads quite a lot, and reviews some of these books on his website. But I would bet the content of my bank account that what he chooses to highlight on his site is, for the most part, not the reading that was actually most valuable to him. But rather, the books on his site are those he thinks would benefit the public the most, the books he wants to be seen as reading for various signaling purposes, or favors he is doing for author friends. Does he really think that Trever Noah’s memoir is worthy of highlighting (or, for that matter, that Noah’s Daily Show is “every bit” as good as Jon Stewart’s, as he claims in his review)? Did he even write the thing himself? Doubtful.
But it makes sense that Gates wouldn’t want us to know what he is actually reading, because that would reveal what he is actually thinking. Not something you might want everyone to know—perhaps for nefarious reasons, but more likely, for mundane ones. It is just quite a personal thing to be revealing to millions of strangers. But this, I think, is what I love most about the idea of receiving book gifts. The act brings me closer to the giver—I learn about what they value, what they find delightful, what to them is worth knowing or thinking about. And in the act of reading from the same source, we share a “headspace” for a brief period of time, draw from a now-more-similar knowledge pool…it is a kind of intimacy.
With that being said, I thought about doing an “honest” recommendation list, deliberately setting aside what they might signal about me, but I think the most honest thing is to simply disclose what I am actively reading at the moment.
Here are the currently active audiobooks:
(And yes, that is a total of 85 titles in progress—but obviously I have given up on most of them, only the first few are active.)
My kindle/physical reading is far more haphazard than audio, I tend to skim rather than actually read. But at the moment, I am focusing on Richard Reeves’ Of Boys and Men (related post coming up), and Edward Banfield’s The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1967). The latter is an ethnography of a poverty-stricken region in southern Italy, in which Banfield highlights the social dysfunctions, distrust, and envy that prevail within the community—leading to the death of the common good and any sense of “community”. Very interesting.
I’ll leave you with a question: If you could gift me a book, what might it be? Or, if you don’t know/care about me very much (how hurtful!), what are you currently reading now?
Not the modern, bland Disney Pooh, but the original, A.A. Milne Pooh. The old pooh was written with a peculiar English whimsy that is both serious and thoroughly absurd at the same time. From the first chapter from The Many Adventures (note: Winnie is primarily a girl’s name):
Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn't. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.
When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, "But I thought he was a boy?"
"So did I," said Christopher Robin.
"Then you can't call him Winnie?"
"But you said——"
"He's Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don't you know what 'ther' means?"
"Ah, yes, now I do," I said quickly; and I hope you do too, because it is all the explanation you are going to get.