A few trusty paperback gift suggestions

By Sean Carman, reporting for MaudNewton.com

I don’t like hardcover editions of novels. There, I said it. Am I alone in this? Paperbacks are so friendly. They bend considerately in your hand, and turning the page requires only that you gently release the pressure on your right thumb to make the odd-numbered page jump obediently to its even-numbered side. They are also light, and travel well. So accommodating!

In addition to their other advantages, paperbacks make perfect holiday gifts. You should not give a paperback to your beloved (unless you are also giving him or her a more touching gift, a stainless steel gas range or an SUV, for example), but for everyone else on your list they are perfect. Gifts are all about flattery, about reminding the other person that you know how sensitive and intelligent they are. By giving a paperback you are saying, “You are the hip person lost in the back of the bus or the far corner of the cafe, the enigma with a rich interior life the rest of us would kill to possess. You, yes you. You are that person.” I’m sorry, but this is just not something one can successfully communicate with a decanter of perfume or a fountain pen.

Of course you need to give the right paperback. By giving someone the paperback edition of Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within you are only communicating that you are an idiot, which is fine if you are looking for a cowardly way to solidify a recent break-up, but I’m not going to assume that my personal relationship habits necessarily have a wide following, or that you should adopt them as a holiday strategy.

“But what is the right paperback?” you ask, suspicious I’m onto something but tentative about proceeding without further guidance. Don’t worry. I’m here for you. This past year, and in the past couple of weeks, I actually went to the trouble of reading some pretty good paperbacks that I can now recommend as gifts. Your friends will love them, and will think of you as the sensitive, intelligent, and well-read person they should be nicer to in the coming year. What more do you want?

Julian by Gore Vidal (Vintage 2003) — In late 2003 Vintage republished Gore Vidal’s major novels in tastefully styled paperback editions. In Seattle they never made the front tables of the book stores, and were instead buried back in the fiction stacks. Julian was one of my favorite reads of this year.

Julian is the fictional memoir of Julian the Apostate, whom you may remember as the last Roman emperor to attempt a restoration of Rome’s pagan gods before Christianity took over forever. Julian’s place on one of history’s great cusps makes him a perfect subject for autobiographical fiction.

Vidal’s enchanting novel presents the manuscript of Julian’s memoir as delivered by Priscus to Libanius, two elderly past contemporaries of Julian who have been friends since childhood. The manuscript is interspersed with commentary from Priscus, which Libanius answers in a kind of internal monologue. Libanius still loves life but Priscus has grown cantankerous, so their side banter is charming.

Brevity was the soul of wit until Gore Vidal started writing, at which point he took over the job, and this novel brims with Vidal’s sly humor (not to mention his detailed knowledge of history). At one point Julian comes upon one of Constantine’s villas. After devoting a paragraph to a detailed description of the allegorical Christian painting on one of its large walls, Julian writes: “A little whitewash ought to do the trick.”

Creation, which concerns the world travels of the imaginary Persian diplomat Cyrus Spitama several thousands years B.C., is even more entertaining and delightful. Our hero makes Herodotus’ journey around the ancient world (he is inspired to recall his adventures by seeing Herodotus himself give a mediocre public lecture, in which, according to our narrator, Herodotus gets half the things he says wrong). Spitama then heads off to India and China, where he even meets the Buddha. This is a heftier book, so it’s the one to recommend if your friend likes Julian. If your friend is into early American history and politics, Burr, equally excellent, is the choice.

Survivors in Mexico (Yale Nota Bene 2004) — This one just came out in paperback, and I’m halfway through it, and it’s wonderful. Assigned by the New Yorker in 1966 to write about Trotsky’s exile in Mexico, Rebecca West never finished the article and instead turned it into a travel book about the history of Mexico. Later, she never finished the book.

West’s gorgeous manuscript was rescued by Bernard Schweizer, who in editing it made the wise choice to smooth over its breaks and rough patches, presumably sparing us the kind of cryptic passages that appear occasionally in the resurrection of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire (whole paragraphs that read, “something here about mythic aspects of infernos”).

West is an entertaining writer, and she moves along in the breezy, witty style that is trademark New Yorker. She writes about Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Trotsky, and the history of Aztecs, all with a perfect mixture of intelligence, charm, and British reserve.

And she’s hilarious to boot. After recounting how a pasha in Yugoslavia (no idea about this, but it suggests a romantic image, no?) prepared for her and her husband a rich concoction of coffee and chocolate (telling them this was how they did it in Mexico), and after describing the setting in which she first sampled this treat, and then further recounting that this small culinary fact was the only thing she knew about Mexico upon her arrival, so that we take for granted that West’s coffee-and-chocolate discovery will be the gateway to our journey, the first of many exotic finds, West writes: “It is in line with life as I know it that when I got to Mexico nobody had ever heard of mixing coffee and chocolate.”

Instantly, I fell in love. I don’t know about you, but this is just the kind of guide I want on an armchair excursion.

The only complaint I can offer about Survivors in Mexico is that it is comprised of short chapters, and so presents a sort of cafeteria-style history of Mexico. And some of the chapters are repetitious, as if West is trying out different narrative approaches to her subjects. But then isn’t that the way travel is? Inevitably you have to retrace your steps, or reconsider what you think about a place you’ve been.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Harper’s Perennial) — All you need to know about this amazing book is that as I sat reading it in Cedar’s in the Village the other week, a beautiful brunette stopped on her way out the door to say to me, enthusiastically, “That’s a great book!” To which I said, laughing with her, “Yes, yes it is.”

Also, it comes in two colors, yellow with pink letters or blue with yellow letters, and a special on-line-only gothic old-school chalkboard black and grey. This novel is magic. It will not lead you astray.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (Anchor 2002) — OK, I haven’t actually read this one. I can’t believe you’re still reading this. Don’t you have work to get back to?

Truthfully, I’m recommending this one because my sister-in-law gave it to me as a gift last year, and she had received it as a gift from her sister, and both of them have exquisite taste. Also, I recently gave it as a going-away gift to my friend Beth, who read it on a flight to Beijing and reported back that she loved it. What I’m saying: Women love this book. Also, it’s a slender novel, and appears to be poetic and happy-sad in that particular way that only literary novels set in China can be (is it even set in China? As I said, I haven’t read it yet), and these are sure strengths in the paperback-novel-as-gift category. As if this were not enough, an achingly gorgeous photograph of a beautiful pair of children’s shoes graces its cover. It is, in short, another can’t miss.

I’m sure there are other fine paperback reads out there, but how many friends do you really have? And are they really going to compare what you gave them? This list should get you through the holidays, and provide a few hours of delight for your friends, who will bask in the flattery of your good taste. Which, again, is what holiday gift-giving is all about.

Happy holidays!


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.