Saturday, December 3, 2011

Gifts for the Cultured Thinker

A gift is a beautiful thing. Whether of congratulation, commemoration, celebration, or thanks, a gift reflects a bond between people. The gift represents shared values, shared duties, and a shared life. Above all it reflects gratitude for the relationship for all it has been, as it has been, and as it endures. A great gift shares in both the uniqueness of the occasion and the uniqueness of both individuals. Thus to give a gift is to presume much and to give a good one requires a great deal of understanding and consideration. That I cannot help you with. Your gift must center around one or more ideas and I cannot give you those ideas. What I can and will do, however, is offer some advice on what types of items which, for refined folks like the authors and readers of this blog, might be vehicles of your ideas and appropriate tokens of your affection. So without further preface, consider these thoughts when shopping for your dear friend or loved one.

Gifts for the Cultured Thinker


Before buying any books first you must realize that any intellectual already has a substantial library. Your gift will take a place among many beloved books. It will be nearly impossible to select an appropriate book if you do not have any access to the library or do not correspond about your literary acquisitions. Supposing you know what he has, consider the following:

  • Complete an incomplete set or series.
  • Replace a worn edition with a new one.
  • Buy his favorite book in a beautiful edition from The Folio Society or The Easton Press.
  • He will have a particular interest. If he doesn't have one of the definitive books in the discipline, get it for him. Otherwise buy a new book in the field. If you don't have knowledge of the field then seek the help of an expert like a professor. If you're in a pinch open to the bibliography in one of them and select something from there.
  • In general, sourcebooks (compilations of primary sources), atlases, books of quotations, and books of pictures germaine to the topic are quite complementary. People often lack these books because they are busy reading up on the "hard" scholarship.
  • If possible, avoid paperbacks.
  • If the book has ever been reissued read the reviews to see if there is a preferred edition. Sometimes an edition merely contains fixes, sometimes a particular version might contain valuable notes, other times someone might have badly revised the work. Check reviews.
  • An unabridged dictionary in any language he speaks. 
  • Buy a pair or trio of books on the same topic (not necessarily a set.)
  • Beware reading aids. Lights, magnifiers, weights, stands, et cetera may or may not fill a need. Only purchase if you have observed a need for them. 
  • Book tassels and ribbons pair well with books, as do bookmarks. Consider a bookmark or ribbon related to the book and perhaps installing the ribbon yourself.
  • Make a custom bookmark.
  • Electronic devices may or may not be of use. They  work well for reading fiction but exercise caution if he uses books for scholarship since it is much easier to flip through a paper book.
  • If they are of fastidious disposition, they may delight in book plates or a custom embosser.
  • Fake books come in a variety of styles.
  • Bookends, preferably which relate to the books and/or match the decor.
Lastly, write a thoughtful note, in pen, in script, with the date and occasion, in the front cover (not on the jacket.)


Bear in mind that not everyone buys movies to own. Even people who love movies don't necessarily want to own them.

  • Recorded live performances, especially of concerts and operas. Do not worry about getting someone another version of the same opera. A connoisseur will appreciate the variety.
  • There are many unusual documentaries on specific topics. They may not be identified as "documentaries" or listed as "documentary" in the title, though, so begin your search at YouTube since people almost always tag documentaries as such. Search for whatever your topic is plus "documentary" or "lecture." There are plenty of unusual sets, series, and esoteric one-offs.
  • Classes from The Great Courses are excellent. (Best to get them on sale earlier in the year!)
  • As with book, buy a few with some common thread (not necessarily a set) and give them together. (But wrap each one separately and tie them together.)
  • As with books, consider filling a gap in a collection.
  • Often people buy movies which are re-released in better editions. Consider replacing an old version with a superior one.
  • Often people buy TV shows as they come out and then when the show is released in toto after the final season, that set comes with a gift. A gift the person who bought the show year-by-year won't have. See if you can find the gift separately (used.)
  • Search for a book of interviews with their favorite director or a biography/autobiography about their favorite actor.
  • Picture books about particular franchies, series, eras, et cetera. 


  • As with the above, do not be afraid to get another version of a particular work.
  • As with the above, look for new releases by a favorite conductor, performer, or ensemble.
  • As with books, consider pairing several together around a particular theme.
  • Operas and musicals work well because they are heftier than singles but not as costly as big sets.
  • Sets are a great idea. The Brilliant Classics sets are an excellent value, if of uneven quality.
  • Even if someone has many works by the artist or composer "complete editions" are still valuable since they will contain odd works that do not fit into other categories and which are for that reason seldom released. 
  • Works transposed for different instrument, from Wendy Carlos' synthesizing to the Swingle Singers' Bach to Albrecht Mayer on the oboe.
  • Get a copy of the score or libretto to go along with the CD.

  • Busts are always a good idea but they can be too big. Six to eight inches is ideal unless they have a great deal of space or want their space to feel like a museum. 
  • Instead of posters try a laminated print or a reproduction.
  • Wall-hangings are an excellent alternative to framed art.
  • Sculptures are risky unless you know the not only the item and the meaning behind it for the person but also the size, style, and potential place for it. 

Paraphernalia of Eccentric Living

  • Book stands, book ends, clocks, hourglasses, pendulums, letter openers, et cetera make good pairings. For example, an hourglass and a book on pre-Socratic philosophy, a book on physics and a pendulum. 
In General

  • In all instances do not be afraid to pair a modest giftcard along with something you picked out. 
  • Tickets to concerts or lecture series are always welcome, but beware scheduling. Some people are very busy, forgetful, careless, et cetera.
  • Beware kitsch. Mozartkugeln are cute. A life-size cardboard cut-out is not. 
  • Be aware of space limitations.
  • Some people have a propensity to break things.
  • Err on the side of beauty over utility.
  • Err on the side of old over new.
  • Err on the side of small over big.
  • Try to work in an element of contrast and humor.
I'll leave you with a few philosophical thoughts on friendship from Aristotle to guide you:
  • Don't overreach. Giving a good gift requires friendship and friendship requires time and familiarity. 
  • love = feeling. friendship = state of character. Mutual love requires choice and springs from a state of character.
  • Friendship is only possible between good men.
  • Good will is not friendship. Good will is to wish well but not to do. 
  • The nature of friendship is to felt toward a few. The nature of love is to be felt toward one.

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