The gift of a book

The ‘Lothair Gospels’, a 9th-century manuscript which may have been commissioned to mark the reconciliation between Charlemagne’s grandsons, Charles the Bald and Lothair I (Paris, BnF, Lat 266)

Books have always made great gifts. We love offering each other books for Christmas, birthdays or other special occasions. First editions, special editions, hardcovers, when it comes to books, the selection seems endless. And it’s unlikely to end up with a duplicate copy.

As much as we love gifting books to each other, we’re not the first to do it. And we’re not the first to do it at scale. As early as the 9th century, European leaders and aristocrats were offering books as part of the gift economy. Many medieval books were produced to be offered as gifts. They could also be commissioned and given to mark political occasions. And to earn favour and patronage – in this world and the hereafter.

Offering books as gifts depends, I think, on two things: scarcity and intrinsic value. We don’t really offer each other Kindle books, or an e-book on a memory stick. Why not? After all, we love gift cards and other ‘disembodied gifts’. E-books have no intrinsic value – and due to their format and replicability, they sit at the far end of the scarcity band. And you can’t sign a digital copy, which anonymises the gift. Most medieval manuscripts offered as gifts included dedications to the giftee. Many of us still do that.

An e-book doesn’t make a good gift because what we are giving is not a reading experience, but an object, relatively rare and relatively valuable. Our age’s rampant disembodiment is only matched by our desire to ground objectlessness into a kind of simulated object-fulness. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we’re offering an e-book as a code/link or memory stick wrapped or encased in a faux-binding.

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