Books Are the Best Present This Year

Physical books are an antidote to all the screen time.

gift of books

Maica / Getty Images

Books are always a great present, but there's something about the wildness of 2020 that makes them more appropriate this holiday season than ever before. After countless hours of Zoom calls, Microsoft Team meetings, and Google Hangouts, people are sick of staring at screens. They're mentally drained from the endless news feeds and social media judgment, the political turmoil, the environmental dread, and the constant demands of homeschooling children. 

Under these circumstances, the tangible escapism of a real physical book has never been more alluring. A book is a self-contained story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is a conclusion, and though it may not always be exactly what we want, at least the end is known. (Meanwhile, we're all waiting for our current nightmare to end – and wondering what that will look like.) 

Books can do many things. They can inspire and uplift; divulging tales of heroes and heroines who have overcome obstacles and passed through difficult times, reminding us that we too can rise to the occasion and this too shall pass. 

Books entertain and distract, pulling us into imaginary worlds where case numbers and lockdown restrictions don't exist. They offer a form of escapism that's intellectually stimulating and gives us something to think about long after the book is finished.

Books educate and inform, teaching us interesting new skills like bread-baking and fermenting and knitting and calligraphy that we never would have explored in the past but suddenly are curious to try. YouTube videos do this, too, but a book goes more in-depth, can be read and reread, and is easily referenced. It can be shared with others who want to develop the same skills and left out for inquisitive children to peruse.

As you can see, there is good reason why a group of French booksellers created a petition earlier this year, begging the government to recognize book sales as an essential service, something that ensures "social confinement is not also cultural isolation." Books offer freedom when the rest of the world feels uncomfortably constrictive. 

There is, however, one fundamental point about books that matters more than ever this year: They should be purchased from independent booksellers, rather than giant online companies. Small, privately owned bookshops have had a rough year, due to the lack of in-person author events that are their biggest income generators. Add to that limited numbers of in-store customers and increased shipping costs to fulfill online orders, and it's a precarious industry right now. The American Booksellers Association is cited in the New York Times, saying that "at least one independent bookstore has closed every single week during the coronavirus pandemic." 

So go to your local bookstore to do your holiday shopping. Show support for it with your dollars. Ask for advice on books suited to your friends' and family's varied interests, and be willing to pay a bit more than you would online because, as a commenter on the Times article put it so well, you're paying for more than just a book:

"When I pay a higher price locally I'm also paying to maintain the bookstore in the neighborhood which makes the neighborhood friendlier and better for people and others. I'm paying for the conversations that happen among readers and clerks. I'm paying for the serendipity of browsing curated stacks. I'm paying to stave off the [corporate] beast from eating the livelihoods of neighbors and community members."

Put that way, it makes a lot of sense. If you can afford to do so, shop local and buy books. And rest assured that your money is well-spent on an item that won't "beep at you, spy on you, sell you out to marketers, interrupt with breaking news, suck you into a doomscrolling vortex, cease to function in a nor’easter, flood your eyes with melatonin-suppressing blue light or otherwise interrupt your already troubled sleep."

If you need some ideas, here are the Treehugger staff picks for 2020, the books that we writers and editors read and loved this year:

Melissa Breyer, editorial director: "The Handbook of Bird Biology, 3rd Edition" was named by Forbes as one of the top 12 books about birding. This new edition is a "comprehensive resource for everyone interested in learning more about birds, from casual bird watchers to formal students of ornithology."

Lloyd Alter, design editor: "I'm reading Jason Hickel's 'Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World' a second time right now. There's so much to learn [and it's] really changing my thinking." 

Maggie Badore, senior commerce editor, says, "I haven't read it yet, but 'All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis' is on my list." This collection of 41 beautiful essays and poems, all written by female scientists, journalists, lawyers, politicians, activists, innovators, and more, is edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. Read Treehugger's review here.

Olivia Valdes, senior editor, recommends "The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature" by Sue Stuart-Smith. This book explores the healing effects of gardening and how it can decrease stress and boost mental wellbeing. "Gardening is one of the quintessential nurturing activities and yet we understand so little about it." Sounds like an ideal recipe for times like these!

Hildara Araya, associate editor, loved Michelle Obama's "Becoming." She says, "It's not environmental and might be a bit political, but it is very down-to-earth and full of hope, an easy and pleasant read." She has given it as a gift to friends for their birthdays throughout the year and it has been well-received. She adds, "I’m bundling it with Barack Obama’s new book for my dad’s Christmas gift."

Christian Cotroneo, social media editor: "News of the World" by Paulette Jiles. This work of historical fiction is set in the aftermath of the Civil War when "an aging itinerant news reader agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people."

Mary Jo DiLonardo, senior writer, is reading "To Dance with the White Dog" because its Southern author Terry Kay recently died. She says, "He called himself an accidental writer and once said, 'For a boy who never wanted to write a book, it’s been a splendid adventure.'" 

Katherine Martinko, senior writer: I recently reread "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar" by Cheryl Strayed and it's as beautiful and perceptive as I remembered from years ago. A book made out of old advice columns, each question and answer is fascinating, intensely thought-provoking, and generally uplifting. It makes you realize just how hard life can be and how resilient people are in the face of challenges.