In every season, bookshops are worth visiting and books make the perfect gift

Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore in Paris, France. Getty Images
Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore in Paris, France. Getty Images

This time of year has got me thinking about gift-giving. Why we do it and what we choose to give. Is it tangible or experiential, and what does it say to the recipient? Is it to celebrate a milestone, a special time of year or just to say this made me think of you?

Earlier this month on a trip to Paris, I visited Shakespeare and Company, one of the most famous bookshops in the world, across the street from the Notre-Dame cathedral. It was the first time I have ever had to stand in line to get into a bookshop. In the two degrees winter of a Parisian morning, couples, families and friends queued for up to 30 minutes to experience briefly what F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway did all those years ago when they connected with kindred spirits in this very shop. The 100-year-old bookshop was originally located in a different part of Paris until the 1950s when this shop carried forward its name.

When stepping into the store, you immediately enter a new dimension. Everything from the smell of old paper and oak wood to the resident cat sitting on the chair by the entrance, and the typewriting nook and piano, where a stranger serendipitously played The Music of the Night, my favourite tune from Phantom of the Opera, tells you that you are surrounded by so much character and history.

So what is it about gifting somebody a book that makes it feel like you are giving them a piece of yourself?

In the narrow rooms of the crowded bookshop, I watched everyone around me search for a piece of this place to take home. A book to mark this moment and keep for themselves or gift to somebody who would cherish it.

It is in the recommendations of bookshops around the world that we often make the best discoveries. This is something that the online ordering space of discounted books has not quite mastered yet.

As the director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, it is at the top of my priorities that we as a festival present just that: a carefully curated programme of special literature from around the world, presenting new authors and books that the UAE community can have the pleasure of discovering. It is the most crucial element of the festival, in my opinion, and the reason our audiences return each year. Our community counts on us to present stories which add something to their lives, something they might not otherwise find.

We often hear the pleasure in the voices of festival attendees who have been gifted tickets to writing workshops by their spouses. A gift that says, now you can finally write that book I know you have in you. Or the gift of a weekend pass which says: "this is what you love and I am gifting you the time to enjoy it without worrying about the kids. I’ve got them".

We have over the years taken the responsibility of providing these experiences that are special enough to be gifted. Each year we welcome hundreds of children who will have been gifted books and festival tickets from parents and family. And it is beautiful to watch children see their favourite authors in the flesh for the first time – when the name on the book for them suddenly becomes a real person, somebody they can have a chance to talk to, listen to and perhaps even look up to.

Sharing a book is different from watching a movie together. You have to invest yourself, use your own imagination and the filter of your life experience. That makes it personal. You cannot be a passive viewer when it comes to literature.

So what is it about gifting somebody a book that makes it feel like you are giving them a piece of yourself? Is it that you share something you love, something that made you feel and think deeply, and you hope someone else will too? Is it that you are handing them the opportunity to build a deeper connection and then you wait on tenterhooks for their verdict? Or it could be something to love and discuss together, which only the two of you will share.

My six-year-old niece would disagree. Whenever I hand her something wrapped, she first closes her eyes and makes a secret wish for a toy before kicking me in the heart with an: "is it another book? You always give me books". But when it comes down to it, she loves our reading time together. One day, the effort will pay off. One day she will smile and give me a wrapped package, suspiciously cuboid and smelling of paper. I will unwrap it to discover a book, which I will read in search of what resonated with her, and I will cherish every moment of what will be the most precious gift of all.

Ahlam Bolooki is festival director for Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

Updated: December 23, 2019 06:04 PM

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