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The best gift: friends and books, all wrapped together

For the past few years, four of my friends and I have participated in a Secret Santa book swap, turning to the New York Times’ annual list of 100 Notable Books for picks. We paint the headlines, pointing out a few we might like and imagining which ones we would choose for each other.

At university, when we were all still in the same city, we would fly an hour between writing the last articles to celebrate and share. This year, as I helped my colleagues at The Morning newsletter to prepare the Times List issue, I once again wondered what books my friends would like.

The pandemic has not disrupted our plans. As we have done for the gift exchange since we parted ways across the country after graduation, we met via video chat. A little late for Eastern Time, a little early for the Pacific, we were busts floating in our little squares.

“A gift for you,” said the note in my package. “Who could I be?”

In a way, our book exchange takes me back to childhood.

Several weekends I went to my grandmother’s house, a few blocks from my school. She would take out the Books section of her print edition of The Times and forward it to me. As she read the main sections, I lay down on the floor, flipping through the new titles. In part, it was just ergonomics: my little hands could handle the Books section in tabloid format more easily than the large format me.

But reading new books was also evaluating new friends. Throughout my childhood, Alanna of Trebond and Anne of Green Gables often felt more familiar than the girls who shared my dining table. I listened to their conversations and didn’t understand how to intervene – I didn’t watch TV and I was taller than all the boys. When I looked at other people’s sleepover albums in the early years of Facebook I wondered, What have they probably been talking about for so long?

In college, everything changed for one simple reason: my friends loved books too. Like me, they turned to novels to understand themselves, and to non-fiction to make sense of the world.

We did our first book swap in my first year, when three of us moved into an apartment together. One night in the middle of the finals, we traded some unpackaged volumes that we had loved this semester. This is what i thought about, say our choices. This is how I try to see the world at the moment.

After college, we continued to exchange gifts. Across oceans and time zones, through new relationships and new jobs, we backed off as soon as we picked up the phone. Sometimes: How are you? Sometimes: Read this and let me know what you think.

This year, when the Notable Books list came out, we made our wishlists like we always have. I asked for “Kim Jiyoung, born in 1982”, an English translation of a thin text on sexism and misogyny in South Korea. (I’ve read it in two mouthfuls and highly recommend it.) We unboxed “A Children’s Bible,” a novel by Lydia Millet, and “Obit,” a collection of poetry by Victoria Chang. Two of us asked for “Memorial Drive,” a memoir by poet Natasha Trethewey. We had all asked for and given books written by women – an accident, but happy.

After unwrapping our presents and guessing our Santa Claus, we flew into the memories of our childhood shelves, recalling the characters who were our first friends, before growing up.

“I don’t remember talking about books with someone I was friends with, maybe until high school,” my friend Elena said. “It was just such an individual little thing.”

I nodded with my friends, who had all read on the school buses and under blankets too. But I realized that was not quite true for me. As a kid, and in college and beyond, I discussed almost every book I read with my grandmother, who gave me the Books section for a reason. She knew books were a way to bring people closer to you.

From her, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to tell a friend that you love her is to ask her what she’s reading. Or, maybe, just give her a book that might delight her in return.

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