10 Books too Beautiful to Buy for Yourself (... Almost)
When people use the term “gift books” it’s not always immediately clear what qualifies a particular book as a gift book rather than a greedily-hoard-for-myself-book. What we’ve found is that many use the term “gift book” to describe a book that could just as easily have fit into another genre, but which also happens to be absolutely beautiful edition. Often, they’re books of photography or graphic design, but not always. The one unifying theme is that they tend to be drop-dead-gorgeous books, well produced and finished.
Indeed, beyond the usual “gift book” category, there is a particular kind of book that you can never quite seem to justify buying for yourself, but would very happily pick up as a present for someone else. They’re the kind of books that would improve any household, but the decadence of purchasing one for your own reading pleasure seems just a little too far.
With that in mind, and with Christmas fast approaching, we have a selection of some of the nicest of those books that are, for one reason or another, just a little bit too much to buy for yourself.
A. A. Milne: Deluxe Winnie-the-Pooh Collection
For those of us who grew up reading about Pooh Bear or watching Disney’s adaptations, the silly old bear holds a special place in our hearts already. Is it special enough to justify the combined cost in shelf-space, money, and nostalgic tears? Ultimately, that depends on how much you value each of those things individually… but we'd say that it is.
What’s worth noting here is that buying the collection for a friend you know to be a Pooh fan will win you some serious brownie points. The only downside is that it’s a huge book, really enormous. Fortunately, when a book is a gift, its physical footprint is effectively reduced to zero; most people will find a way to make room for a nice book received as a present.
Now obviously, our first thought is that this might make a great gift to a child who hasn't yet read any Pooh, but wouldn’t such a lovely collection be wasted on a child? No, it would be better to give it to a well-meaning adult who might one day read it to a child. That sounds kind of like us though, doesn't it? Maybe we could just keep a copy in the house, just in case. Put it on that shelf over there… well, half on the shelf over there. Perfect.
Richard McGuire: Here
Richard McGuire’s Here is an exquisite book, a series of illustrations all drawn from the same viewpoint over the course of many years. The art style is gorgeous, but what really draws the reader in is the tiny panels and windows in each page that offer glimpses of the same place at other moments in history.
Originally published as a series of single-panel comics, Here debuted in 1989, though the full 300-image collection appeared in 2014. While it’s interesting for its formal experimentation and spectacular artwork, Here deserves a mention here for its presentation, a gorgeous hardback whose cover appears to portray the outside of the window shown in every Here panel. It’s a perfect book for people who are otherwise impossible to buy for, a near-perfect gift for just about anyone (who has a coffee table on which it can live).
It’s almost impossible to say anything about Here that isn’t said better by a sample of its art:
Now, imagine the Here-style snapshot view of your own living room. Is there a tiny picture-in-picture window that shows a copy of Here on your desk? Is it labelled, "later this month?" Do you dare to fly in the face of that prediction?
It would almost be safer for causality for you to pick up a copy.
Beatrix Potter: World of Peter Rabbit
Returning to the theme of beloved-childhood-classics-with-editions-too-beautiful-to-be-reserved-for-children, this collection of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books is presented in its own case, which should keep them safe from most of the usual scuffs and bumps that wear away at children’s books. Moreover, it means that you can easily give a child a single gift of literally all of Peter Rabbit, a gift made only more popular by Brown Bag’s ongoing animated series.
Of course, the important things are kept intact, and the illustrations that sit at the core of so many Peter-Rabbit-memories are well-reproduced. This is another childhood classic that you can probably justify keeping in your house in case of a forgotten child’s birthday, but secretly just having it because you can’t let it go.
After all, if there's one lesson we've learned from Peter Rabbit, it's that you can just be a bit greedy and have a bunch of things you don't need and it probably won't go wrong at all.
The Enchanted Collection is a little different in that it doesn’t have a single author. Instead, it’s effectively a whole literary childhood bundled up and packed into a single box. It’s a selection of five of the timeless-childhood-classics that woke us up to literature in the first place:
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
- The Secret Garden
- Black Beauty
- The Wind in the Willows
- Little Women
Again, while this might look like a great present for children at first glance, you’ll find on closer examination that it’s actually too nice to give to a child. The books are each stylishly illustrated in a way that a child might not appreciate anyway, giving you another excuse not to pass it on.
If you’re at all like us, this collection is the kind of thing you can just about justify buying “for the house,” in case you one day end up with some children who you’d like to introduce to the same books as you read growing up… which you’ll get to keep if you never quite get around to having children.
Arthur Conan Doyle: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes
There are a few truly wonderful Sherlock Holmes collections, but The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes goes a step beyond most in that the annotations are all well-drawn considerations of each case, but always steer clear of overwhelming the text.
The notes from literary editor Leslie Klinger could seem totally extraneous, but instead round out the rest of the short stories, lending them a sense of time and place beyond Conan Doyle’s short vignettes. The notes are also positioned in the margins, right alongside the text, rather than clumped together as end-notes.
For what it’s worth, the book’s introduction discusses a number of Holmes adaptations, and takes the time to shine a spotlight on Without a Clue, which we all know to be secretly the best cinematic adaptation of Sherlock Holmes.
The two volumes in this collection present the complete short stories of Sherlock Holmes, while The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes Volume 3 assembles the four Sherlock Holmes novels. They have their high points, but the reality is that the short stories are really where Conan Doyle (and Holmes as a character) are at their best.
Walt Whitman: Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself
Walt Whitman’s poetry alone is an entirely reasonable thing to buy yourself as a sly present, but the Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself is something just a little more special than that. Artist Allen Crawford has painstakingly illustrated the 60-page poem “like medieval monks with their own holy scriptures.”
Adding artwork to poetry always runs the risk of gilding the lily, but Crawford’s art is spectacular and strangely transformative. The poem itself is written into the art, the lettering arcing and flowing into the imagery. There really is no way to adequately describe it with words alone, so we’ll leave you with an image to satiate your curiosity.
There comes a point at which we lose the ability to meaningfully articulate why we shouldn't own something, and the Whitman Illuminated lives far beyond that point.
Hans Christian Andersen: The Fir Tree
The name Hans Christian Andersen has become synonymous with fairy tales. While he is better known for The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Ugly Duckling, Andersen’s The Fir Tree is another short work focussing on a single human weakness and its negative effects on those who engender it.
Those of you who have already read your share of Hans Christian Andersen stories will already know that his work tends to be a combination of simple life lessons and a deep, unaccountable melancholy. Published alongside The Snow Queen, The Fir Tree is often said to have been the first of his stories to have that dour undertone. The story follows the life of a small fir tree in such a rush to grow up that it’s incapable of slowing down and appreciating the life it has now.
All of that aside, this is a darling edition of an old favourite, with illustrations from Sanna Annukka. Given the fir tree itself and its message about greed, this is an excellent book to pick up around Christmas, honestly intending to give it to some child or other, but then forget about only to find late enough that you’ll just have to keep it.
CS Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia is another of those books-we-read-as-children-that-warrant-at-least-one-reread-as-adults. For most of us, the copies we read as children are either gone and long forgotten or they’ve been read into oblivion, the pages falling apart as the last of the joy was sapped from them.
This edition of The Chronicles of Narnia features the full seven book series in brightly-coloured hardback and a nice case to keep them all together, which might save them from the stresses our old books were exposed to.
Obviously, this might seem like a high price to pay to relive a precious piece of your childhood, but if you examine it from all the angles, you’ll probably find that a boxed-set of The Chronicles of Narnia is actually a fair bit cheaper than building your own wardrobe and hoping against hope that it serves as the conduit between Earth and a magical plane filled with high adventure. Or, y’know, maybe just go with the wardrobe, but know also that you’re giving up on your inner child forever.
Charles Schulz: The Complete Peanuts 1991-1994
Most of us will have read Peanuts as children, but the fact remains that the comic reads a lot better as an adult seeing the often sad realities of adult life transposed onto young children.
Unfortunately, that sense of looking back means that there’s a lot to untangle if you’re buying a particularly high-quality collection of Peanuts for yourself. On one hand, you start to question whether or not you’re trying desperately to recapture something that has already been lost forever. On top of that, there’s the fear that you’re justifying the act through the sophisticated presentation of some apparently very childish material, attempting to elevate the content to a certain level of profundity through quality binding.
On the other hand, if you keep telling yourself that you’re buying The Complete Peanuts as a present to pass on to someone else, then it doesn’t really matter what the real reason is… you don’t need to examine the idea at all.
Bill Waterson: The Complete Calvin & Hobbes
Speaking of Peanuts, perhaps the only comic series to have survived the transition from childhood-stable to bittersweet-reflective-adult-reading better than Schulz’ is Waterson’s Calvin & Hobbes. Where Schulz often has a sense of distance and insight, Waterson’s work is infused with the boundless energy of childhood. Calvin is seldom despondent so much as he is overcome by ineffectual rage.
That Hobbes serves as a combination of imaginary friend and oddly more mature influence is both the root of much of the comic’s humour and of people's love for the tiger. Calvin, by contrast, is simultaneously the philosophical pragmatist and the happy-go-lucky child of the duo.
Moreover, if you create a reasonably realistic imaginary friend for yourself, you can pretend you’re buying The Complete Calvin & Hobbes as a gift for them. That way, you can quietly dodge the idea that you’re buying the book for yourself, and at the same time guarantee that it won’t ever leave your house.