The Loveliest Gift: Friends and Books, All Wrapped Together

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For the past few years, four of my friends and I have taken part in a Secret Santa book swap, turning to The New York Times’s annual 100 Notable Books list for selections. We comb the titles, flagging a few we might like and imagining which ones we would pick for one another.

In college, when we were all still in the same city, we would steal an hour between writing final papers to celebrate and share. This year, as I helped my colleagues on The Morning newsletter prepare the issue that was devoted to The Times’s list, I wondered once again which books my friends would want.

The pandemic didn’t disrupt our plans. As we’ve done for the gift swap since we splintered across the country after graduation, we met on video chat. A little late for Eastern time, a little early for Pacific, we were busts floating in our little squares.

“A gift for you,” the note in my package read. “Who could I be?”

In a way, our book swap takes me back to childhood.

On many weekends, I went to my grandmother’s house, a few blocks from my school. She would pull out the Books section from her print edition of The Times and pass it along to me. As she read through the main sections, I lay on the floor, flipping through the new titles. In part, that was just ergonomics: My little hands could more easily manage the tabloid-size Books section than the me-size broadsheet.

But reading about new books also felt like assessing new friends. Throughout my childhood, Alanna of Trebond and Anne of Green Gables often felt more familiar than the girls who shared my lunch table. I’d listen to their conversations and not understand how to jump in — I didn’t watch television, and I was taller than all of the boys. When I looked at albums of other people’s sleepovers in the early years of Facebook, I’d wonder, What did they possibly talk about for that long?

In college, everything changed for a simple reason: My friends loved books, too. Like me, they turned to novels to understand themselves, and to nonfiction to make sense of the world.

We did our first book swap in my junior year, when three of us moved into an apartment together. One night, in the midst of finals, we exchanged unwrapped volumes that we had loved that semester. This is what I’ve been thinking about, our choices said. This is how I’m trying to see the world right now.

After college, we kept up the gift swap. Across oceans and time zones, through new relationships and new jobs, we slipped right back whenever we picked up the phone. Sometimes: How are you? Sometimes: Read this and tell me what you think of it.

This year, when the Notable Books list came out, we drew up our wish lists as we have always done. I asked for “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982,” an English translation of a slim text about sexism and misogyny in South Korea. (I read it in two big gulps and highly recommend it.) We unwrapped “A Children’s Bible,” a novel by Lydia Millet, and “Obit,” a poetry collection from Victoria Chang. Two of us asked for “Memorial Drive,” a memoir by the poet Natasha Trethewey. We had all requested and given books written by women — an accident, but a happy one.

After we unwrapped our gifts and guessed our Santas, we spiraled off into recollections of our childhood bookshelves, recalling the characters who were our first friends, before we grew up.

“I don’t remember talking about books with anyone that I was friends with, until maybe high school,” my friend Elena said. “It was just such an individual little thing.”

I nodded along with my friends, who had all read on school bus rides and under covers, too. But I realized that wasn’t quite true for me. As a child, and through college and beyond, I discussed nearly every book I read with my grandmother, who gave me the Books section for a reason. She knew that books were a way to bring others closer to you.

From her, I learned that one of the best ways to tell a friend you love her is to ask what she’s reading. Or, maybe, just give her a book that might delight her in return.

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