Choosing a Valentine's Day gift for the book lover in your life


First aired on Fresh Air (11/2/12)

A book can make a great Valentine's Day present. But choosing that singular expression of love can also be trickier than relying on the generic bouquet or box of chocolates. Recently, CBC Books' Erin Balser and her partner, Matt Elliott, spoke with Fresh Air host Mary Ito about what makes it a mine-field. "Picking a book says so much about you, and what you like, and what you think the other person is like," Erin explained.

So if you pick a book that your beloved despises, it's going to affect their impression of you. Erin went on to imagine her reaction if Matt gave her a book by Danielle Steele. "I'd be like, what the...?," she said. "I would never read romance, this is also not a high-quality book, so therefore I am seeing you as a different kind of person if this is the kind of book you like."

Erin clearly has strong opinions. So when it came to gift-giving in the early days of their relationship, how did Matt figure out what she was looking for in a good book? "With Erin, it is an incredibly dangerous game," he admitted. "She reads pretty well constantly. If she has five minutes of down-time, she's picking up a book. So our bookshelves are packed with titles. So to even begin to try to find something that she hasn't read, or heard about, or read a review on and has sort of already decided she how she feels about it, is incredibly challenging." He went on to say that when they were first dating, he didn't even risk it.

Not Erin, however. "I give Matt books all the time," she said, adding that he has a huge stack of books that she's given him that "he has not yet read."

Erin tries to tailor her gifts to suit his personal taste. "Matt reads a lot of non-fiction, and he reads a lot of stuff that is in the Zeitgeist." She pointed out he was one of the first people to read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, and he picked up The Game of Thrones series when it became a TV phenomenon. "So when The Social Network movie came out, I got him The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. He's definitely the kind of person who likes to know more about what's happening, and so I tend to give him books that do that."

What does Erin think of her boyfriend's taste in books?

"I think it's good," she said. But she also acknowledged that he's very forgiving of the books he reads, and she doesn't share his enthusiasm for the fantasy genre. "I can appreciate people who want to read that stuff, but I wouldn't touch The Game of Thrones with a 10-foot pole."

She offered an assessment of the book -- it's a thousand pages long, so detailed, with so many characters -- but hasn't actually read it. Does that make her a book snob?

Matt laughed about the fact that Erin is not so forgiving of the books she reads. "It's her job, and I totally understand why she has to read so much, and why she has to come to quick decisions about whether what's she's reading is good or not. Whereas I read more to relax myself, just for enjoyment."

Given that there's a bit of a divide in their reading pattern, how do they bridge the gap? "When I give Matt a book, I don't give him something that I liked and I want to share with him, unless I think there's a reason he will like it too, " Erin explained. One of her favourite books of last year was Brian Francis's novel, Natural Order, about a mother coming to terms with her son's gayness. But she wouldn't share it with her boyfriend. "I think Matt would appreciate the literary merit of the book, but he wouldn't have the same emotional connection I did, and we wouldn't be able to talk about that book on that level. That's fine."

They're both keen on the work of Ben Mezrich, though, so she recently gave Matt his latest book, Sex on the Moon, which is about the NASA intern who stole moon rocks and the cover-up that ensued. "That's the kind of book that we can talk about and both enjoy."

Though Erin touts the benefits of being selective, she also has an alternative strategy for literary lovers: "Give them so many books that they don't remember which ones are bad."