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Holiday Books To Give and To Get

Zoomer’s resident book expert offers seven holiday-book gift guides to satisfy every reader on your list, from film buffs to bibliophiles / BY Nathalie Atkinson / December 17th, 2020


I don’t know about you, but this year, more than ever, books have been my saving grace. In these challenging (to put it mildly) political and pandemic times, we take comfort where we can find it – long walks, obsessive cleaning, music, baking. I do all of these things, but the most effective by far is reading.

The seemingly bottomless supply of quotable mugs and pillows for book lovers may be cheesy, but they’re not wrong. One current favourite cliché is: “I disappear into books. What’s your superpower?” Admittedly, reading books and writing about the ideas they contain is a significant chunk of my day job. But that’s not the only reason I devote considerable time and energy to curating my reading life. These days reading is among the only ways I successfully avoid doomscrolling (to use the term coined by Canadian journalist Karen Ho).

December is the season for book lists and roundups – read-and-loved, must read next, did not finish, to-be-read and Top 5, 10, 20 – even 100 – in print and online, including celebrity blogs like the one from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. I’m grateful for each and every one of them. For one thing, they’re practical saviours during the book-buying gift season when we make wish lists for both giving and getting.

Our holiday picks are not definitive best-of lists, but gift guides focused on notable and interesting titles that augment the onslaught of superlative-laden offerings that often feature the same bestselling suspects.

Recapping our critical and collective reading habits helps make sense of the year in culture, and our choices reflect the year in living. We hope Zoomer’s regular Zed: The Zoomer Book Club lists and these new themed holiday book listicles spark your curiosity.

Book cover of a retro McDonalds, shot at a wide angle against a deep blue sky.
An architectural photographer’s lavish tribute to midcentury automobile culture, futuristic façades, and the golden age of driving is on our Wildcards gift guide.

There are bracing anti-racism reading lists for allies and activists, deep dives for cinephiles, popular culture histories, and even titles for outliers with idiosyncratic tastes. Some people (myself included) keep a list of all the books they’ve read, and there’s a similar impulse at work in several picks on Zed’s wish list for bibliophiles. You’ll find several recently re-issued books on our Hidden Gems list. And sometimes we need some mindfulness and escapism to deal with the prolonged isolation and social distancing measures still ahead, so take a look at our Nesting Instincts list.

White book cover - close up image of green leaves on a vine, with a graphic white cross/hospital symbol.
From our Nesting Instincts list, this book by a green-thumbed psychologist explores the relationship between people and plants.

Reading offers many things, including refuge, edification, empathy, and solace. Just ask Vera Stanhope’s indomitable creator Ann Cleeves, who is personally financing the work of two bibliotherapists in her community. No wonder we seem to be doing a lot of it this beleaguered year. OverDrive, the leading digital reading platform for libraries worldwide (available in about 90 per cent of public libraries in North America), has observed a dramatic change in the way we’re reading during the pandemic. The company just released its annual lists highlighting the most popular ebooks and audiobooks read on Libby, its proprietary e-reading app, and — no surprise – Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo are among the top 10 most checked-out ebooks globally.

Obama’s 2018 memoir, which has sold 10 million copies, is on track to become the bestselling memoir of all time.

While public-health safety forced many public libraries to temporarily close their doors or curtail physical circulation services, Libby served as a resource for readers to access digital collections for free, and that resulted in 366 million ebook and audiobooks checked out across libraries worldwide this year—a 30 per cent increase from 2019.

A book is a book, whatever its medium, although that doesn’t stop the analog versus digital debate. As someone who reads in every form (including a prodigious library holds list), I will admit: I am all too easily distracted by push notifications on a multi-tasking tablet, so I prefer either a physical book or a dedicated e-reader (in my case a Kobo).

Atkinson recommends Susanna Clark’s Piranesi for its dense and sprawling surreality.

As for more populist year-end lists, they show readers were drawn to fiction that chimes with the mood of the moment and reacts to life during the coronavirus crisis and current events. As the year progressed, certain novels become heavy with stickers that attest to both their virtuosity and popularity, like Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, which made many year-end bests, as did Charles Yu’s National Book Award-winning Interior Chinatown. In that literary vein I’ve also been recommending Susanna Clarke’s vertiginous fantasy Piranesi and the complicated love and friendship triangle at the heart of Joseph O’Connor’s sumptuous Shadowplay, as well as Lydia Millet’s urgent climate dystopia A Children’s Bible. Like most of the year’s most popular novels, Kiley Reid’s Sun a Fun Age or Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind also happen to be both big ideas and riveting diversions.

Anxious People book cover
Backman’s story walks the fine line between pathos and farce with the same brand of absurdist humour that made A Man Called Ove a hit.

At other times we reach for stories that staunch the widespread malaise, like the ensemble tragicomedies Anxious People and The Thursday Murder Club, both charming and surprisingly poignant. But in a year when corporations profited from the pandemic in myriad ways (often at the expense of essential and underpaid workers), our readerly reaction might charitably be described as ‘eat the rich.’ David Goodhart’s provocative argument for erasing the status-driven hierarchies of labour and for rewarding a broader range of achievement in Head, Hand, Heart: Why Intelligence is Over-Rewarded, Manual Workers Matter, and Caregivers Deserve More Respect could not have been more timely.

Whether they are garlanded in laurels and pedigreed critical acclaim or not, these lists and our own Zoomer holiday guides will help you get through.

The life of reading is Sisyphean and, like gardening for the future, making reading lists is an act of hope. There’s comfort in knowing there are always more books, beckoning in the form of a digital hold or in teetering stacks around the house, patiently waiting their turn.

Here are our seven themed lists. Happy reading!

The Gift of Books: Books for Book Lovers

The Gift of Books: Nesting Instinct

The Gift of Books: Wildcards

The Gift of Books: Cultural Studies

The Gift of Books: For Film Buffs

The Gift of Books: Hidden Gems

The Gift of Books: For Allies