Mid-May through end of June, graduation presents are flung to young people like so many palm fronds under asses’ feet. It's been a while since I've had a successful encounter with an institution of booklearnin', but I remember getting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I finished high school. Never mind that subsequent studies disinclined me to take Pirsig seriously; I read his book when I got it and dreamt of cycling across the plains with nothing but a tent and my meager late-teenage wits.
People like to wrap books up for grads. There's something about it that’s less crass than a sappy card padded with cash or stiffened with an Applebee's gift card. Books enrich, even if they were purchased off a display table with a GIFTS FOR GRADS placard on it. And booksellers love to promote graduation books: they’re part of a spring giving trifecta, along with Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, that gives a major boost to sales. Way back in ’97, Publishers Weekly noted that this growing “holiday-ization” of book sales—employed mostly by chains, but also by your beloved indies—had helped make May and June the best sales months behind the Christmas season.
Which is only natural. We purchase because we love, y’know.
Now, fifteen years after the industry woke up to its own practices, bookshops are bursting with that vanilla version of graduation gifting, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Dr. Suess's book is supposed to be whimsical, apt, indicative. This cynic doesn’t much think OTPYG is much of the latter two, but it does jiggle with whimsy. And cliché. Because (some) folks take graduation as a cultural milestone that suggests a future wide open with potential greatness and achievement. It’s a token way of saying, "You're destined for great things!" And all the while it affirms the aspirations of a generation of egotists assured they will get exactly what they want, cuz they deserve it. (Never mind if we’re all that way from eighteen to twenty-two.)
But let’s talk about the grad on your list. Let’s say you want to let them know that you actually have given some thought to the unique qualities that make them a human being, qualities that will deepen over the course of their life and make them as pleasant and savory as pi dan. In that case, get them a book that fits with those traits! Not one that was intended for five year olds!
If you haven’t given thought to your giftee's unique qualities, don’t despair. The trick is to not aim at producing easy happiness or honing in on whatever they’re enthusiastic about this year; that shit fades. Instead, giveMiddlemarch. Or Moby-Dick. By the time they get around to reading your book (if they ever do), its emotional complexity and portrayal of life's twisted course will make the sweetest sort of sense it can—that it doesn’t have to.
And in the interim, the book's spine will make your loved one look that much more intelligent whenever their houseguests are looking for the bathroom.
Image: flickr user David Bivins