Books as gifts can go awry. Unwrapping a self-help tome feels awfully pointed. A bookstop-size work of historical fiction will not thrill a reluctant reader, nor will every poetry lover respond to the latest ephemera from a TikTok influencer. And while a novel or story collection can be your own favorite book of the year, literature is so intimate it can make for an unpredictable gift, except of course to one’s self (for an excellent list of recent titles we loved, check out the 2023 Fall Books Preview).
Finding just the right book for an intended recipient is magical, communicating how well you know and value the person and your connection to them. The winter holidays ask us to consider love, beauty, and awe — which is why so many titles on this list are lavishly illustrated. Any of them would be a terrific gift, but only you, the giver, knows which one belongs with which of your loved ones.
For those possessing timeless elegance and style, my favorites this year focus on fashion. “Fashioned by Sargent” accompanies an exhibition of the same name that’s currently up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It’s a beautifully illustrated look at how John Singer Sargent, the artist most known for his portraits of Gilded Age figures (including many Bostonians), portrayed his subjects’ clothing. The exhibition stays at the MFA until Jan. 15 — it heads to London after that — so you could pair this gift with a museum outing for a delightful holiday treat. If your favorite fashionista is more enticed by the sporty and current, check out “Fly: The Big Book of Basketball Fashion.” Mitchell S. Jackson breaks down NBA eras by the signature looks worn by their stars. Clyde Frazier and Julius Erving are here of course, but did I also see Larry Bird?
For the person who simply loves beauty, in all its forms, a trio of coffee table books will bring lasting delight. “Soil to Table: Recipes for Healthy Soil and Food” sounds a bit uptight but don’t be fooled: coauthors Henrietta Courtauld and Bridget Elworthy are the women behind English landscape design firm The Land Gardeners, whose 2020 book “Cut Flowers” introduced their passion for earthly abundance and joy. The images alone will feed your soul. “Latin American Artists: From 1785 to Now” paints an expansive, visually stunning group portrait of more than 300 artists from a region whose artistic output is still unfamiliar to many in the United States. Finally, “Lee Miller: Photographs,” curated and authored by her son, Antony Penrose, gathers some of the most stunning images made by the photographer during her years covering both war and fashion — as well as pictures taken of her by members of the avant-garde art world she inhabited.
For the reader whose favorite art form is music, I’d recommend one of these titles, all of which will send readers to update their playlists. In “Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music,” jazz great Henry Threadgill recounts the musical and personal journeys that led to his 2016 Pulitzer Prize for the album “In for a Penny, In for a Pound” in smart, lyrical prose. Based on interviews with more than 100 musical artists, “But Will You Love Me Tomorrow? An Oral History of the ‘60s Girl Groups” lets singers from groups including the Supremes and the Shirelles describe their careers in American popular music from the sock hop days to the Vietnam era. Their fame spanned the rise of teen culture and the modern civil rights movement, and their music — energetic, yearning, idealistic — provided a soundtrack perfect for its times. In “All Tomorrow’s Parties: The Velvet Underground Story,” Koren Shadmi places us right in Andy Warhol’s Factory listening to sounds nobody, not even the musicians making them, had heard before. This inventive graphic biography of the world’s coolest band will intrigue both old fans and those making a belated introduction.
The poetry lovers in your life may be hard to shop for, but few can deny the appeal of “The Iliad,” more emotionally resonant if less colorful than The Odyssey. Emily Wilson has translated both, and here she conveys Homer’s musicality and muscularity in vivid, enduring language. If your recipient’s taste is more modern, poet Monica Youn’s National Book Award finalist collection “From From” demonstrates the durability and flexibility of what poets do, making and breaking form to explore identity, humanity, and language itself.
Let’s say you need a gift for a little one or the person who reads their bedtime stories. A pair of beloved picture book authors have new books out: in “Stickler Loves the World,” Lane Smith invites children to join along with Stickler as the strange, wooded creature catalogs all of the tiny miracles that make life so wonderful. Mo Willems is back with “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Sleigh!” — the title is self-explanatory, but the fun in reading Willems can’t be explained; it must be experienced.
And finally, for the fathers out there, who are so often short-changed in the world of gifts, three verifiable Dad Books (this is a compliment!). Striking illustrations by Youseff Daoudi perfectly match the vivid text by poet Adrian Matejka in the graphic novel “Last on his Feet, Jack Johnson and the Battle of the Century.” “Agents of Chaos: Thomas King Forçade, High Times, and the Paranoid End of the 1970s” spins a twisted yet entertaining tale of a -once- idealistic counterculture colliding with capitalism, paranoia, and lots of drugs. In “Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments,” Joe Posnanski rummages through the archives of our most storied sport, finding and retelling the narratives that grab your heart and squeeze — from familiar tearjerks like David Ortiz rallying the crowd just after the 2013 Marathon bombing to lesser-known stories of forgotten heroes and long-gone ballparks.
We’d love to know: What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift? What are you giving this year? Fill out the form below to let us know.