Call Me Uncle Book: Gift Giving Recommendations from Jess Walter, Author of The Cold Millions

Jess Walter is hands-down one of America’s finest storytellers today. The bestselling author of Beautiful Ruins delivered another “literary miracle” (NPR) this year with The Cold Millions — a riveting tale of two brothers wrapped up in a period piece with an ageless message. Jess flawlessly navigates the gaps between the haves and the have-nots, dreams and reality to create a fascinating, entertaining, amusing and, at times, heartbreaking tour de forceHere, Jess Walter offers some book gifting advice (even for the “non-readers) and why books — more so now than ever — really are the perfect retreat.

Call me Uncle Book.

Invariably, at some point on Christmas, someone will hold up a book-shaped gift that I have ingeniously wrapped to look exactly like a book. They will scratch their heads. Hmm, what could this be? Hang glider? Leaf blower? Tap shoes? (Spoiler alert: it’s probably a book.)

Here’s why I give so many books for the holidays: how else can you — for between ten and thirty dollars — send someone to Rome? Or into space? How else can you give hours of entertainment and inspiration, possibly even change someone’s perspective on life?

We all know to give books to people who love reading. What I am here to argue is that it’s even better giving books to people who don’t read.

To my shame, that category of “non-reader” is disproportionately filled with men. (Not all men, of course, but statistically, women are more likely to be readers.) I wish I had a dollar for every time a woman in a book club or at a reading has come up to me and said, my husband doesn’t read.

There is a way to fix that. Giving books to non-readers is aspirational. It shows you care, that you believe in that person as a creature of intellect and growth.

So here are a few suggestions for dudes-who-don’t-read-and-everyone-else:

Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition, by Buddy Levy. I gave this book to a nephew and he read it in one sitting, like I did. A stirring adventure with stiff upper lips and the threat of cannibalism. What more could you want?

How about courtside NBA tickets — Jeff Pearlman’s two delicious books on the Los Angeles Lakers, this year’s Three Ring Circus and Showtime are like reality TV, except with more celebrity, more backbiting, more bad behavior. Oh, and basketball.

And speaking of basketball, Ross Gay has written a stunning book-length poem called Be Holding about a single play from the 1980 NBA finals — Julius Erving’s famous windmill layup around the Los Angeles Lakers — that he uses a springboard into the stirring poetic essay about sports, memory and racial justice. This is my favorite kind of book gift: the unexpected life-changer. Imagine your non-reading brother-in-law suddenly becoming conversant in modern American poetry — and next year, pulls you aside to discuss the work of Claudia Rankine and Jericho BrownJoy Harjo and Juan Felipe Herrera. Books allow people to surprise you.

Peter Guralnick’s Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music & Writing is the most aptly named book. You will get lost for days in Guralnick’s passionate, conversational style as he traces his career of soul-stirring writing about musicians from Ray Charles to Johnny Cash to Tammy Wynette to Eric Clapton.

I love history, too, and one of my favorite books this year was Lesley M.M. Blume’s Fallout: the Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World, a lucid and powerful story of the reporter who broke one of the biggest stories of the twentieth century and returned a sense of humanity to the idea of warfare.

I’ll end with my favorite genre, fiction, and Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies — a challenging, searing novel about America and identity in the time we have just lived through. Early on, Akhtar makes another argument for books, pointing out how “the devices that enslave our minds (have) filled us with the toxic flotsam of a culture no longer worthy of the name …”

You know what is worthy of the name culture. A great book. Wrapped and handed to someone who didn’t even know what they were missing.

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