Rebecca Makkai’s 2020 Literary Christmahanukwanzivus Gift Guide

Posted in Media, News on October 12 2020

Since indie bookstores need us to order our holiday gifts NOW, and since books are easy to wrap and store and ship, here’s my attempt at a 2020 Literary Christmas/Hannukah/Kwaanza/Festivus gift guide!

To find a local bookstore near you, or your giftee, check out Indiebound!

While most indie bookstores will wrap books for you, BookBub, has some excellent ideas for book wrapping yourself!

Due to my judging duties this year, I am not recommending any new American fiction, but I know you can find that on your own! 

Now, to the suggestions!

  • Since we can’t travel, do a city package!

I love The Zookeeper’s War, about competing zoos in East and West Berlin.  Add Ida Hattemer Higgins’s under-appreciated The History of History & Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. Add pretzel mix, wrap in a map of Berlin.

  • A YA package for the teen/young adult reader

Combine one of these lovely reading pillows from Etsy with Jennifer E. Smith’s Notes On Love or Michell Falkoff’s latest, How to Pack for the End of the World (out this November in hardcover!)…I’d include good popcorn or candy in a YA package, and maybe a couple of sheet masks.

  •  A package for the emerging (or submerging) writer

A full set of the Paris Review interviews (always my favorite gift for writers) plus…some Writers’ Tears whiskey


I mean, you’ve just gotta.

  • A wine and cheese pairing

I’m likely preaching to the choir here, but I’d say that Duchess Goldblatt’s memoir would pair very well with a bottle of strange wine and some stinky cheese…and an explanation to your baffled friend of what’s going on here.

There are some indies, including Book Cellar in Chicago, that sell wine by the bottle. A book-and-wine pairing for everyone in your family would be a pretty great gift. (okay, maybe not for the toddlers)

  • A gift for when we can travel again

I wasn’t familiar with the Wild Sam Field Guides until I was in the Chicago one earlier this year, but they’re brilliant literary/artistic/offbeat guides to cities, appropriate for those who live there OR those who don’t. They even have one for the moon.

  • The book-and-movie combo

A DVD of a the classic, Hitchcock’s The Birds, plus the brilliant BFI book about that movie. (Camila Paglia writing about The Birds?? OMG) OR the book the movie was based on…and bucket of The Popcorn Factory’s Chicago mix. They let you put a photo the bucket, so you can long-distance watch a movie with the friend you haven’t seen since March 11th.

  • An audiobook of their choosing that supports indie bookstores!

Sign a friend up for and give them a gift card for audiobooks. The sales go directly to the indie bookstore of your choosing! You could tuck the explanatory note inside a cute Etsy case for their AirPods.

  • A stack of books by Black authors

826 Chi has a wonderful curated list of books by Black authors; you can get a big stack of them and support an amazing literary nonprofit, as well as these authors and publishers.

  • Start a short story book club

And your local indie is likely to have a bunch of great bookmarks too.

The 2020 Best American Short Stories from Heidi Pitlor and Curtis Sittenfeld is out on November 3rd. Pair it with a really cute bookmark and a promise to your friend, sister, brother-in-law, neighbor, etc.. that you’ll keep pace with them and discuss each story together…a mini book club!


  •  A subscription to a book review

We really need book reviews to stay in business. The physical New York Times Book Review in itself is pretty pricey, but maybe that makes it a nice gift for someone you adore…This PLUS a gift card to an indie bookstore would be an amazing gift. OR you could give them just one issue (like the 10 best books of the year one) plus the gift card.

  • A book advent calendar for a picture-book aged child

This one is particularly great for grandparents…

One particular favorite of mine is Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall. Another is The Quiltmaker’s Gift. And of course Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love.

  • Do book-and-food pairings

Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, plus Mark Kurlansky’s amazing history of salt (really!) plus a box of smoked Maldon sea salt. Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History is one of the more fascinating nonfiction books I’ve read.


If you haven’t joined the cult yet…

  •  Do a year theme

This one is great for birthdays, too: If your grandfather was born in 1940, get him a bunch of books published that year (plus movies, etc…)

  • Start a long-distance book club

Find a book you love or want to read; send copies to far-flung friends, along with an invite to a Zoom book club for a certain night AND a recipe card for a relevant cocktail.

So for instance, you send them Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House (great nonfiction for book clubs) along with a recipe for a Sazerac.

  • Save the Post Office!

 A lot of indies have great greeting card sections. ( Women & Children First has the best in Chicago.) Give someone a stack of 20 hand-picked cards and a sheet of 20 stamps that are relevant to their obsessions.

  • For middle-grade readers, or alternatively, a book Menorah!


You could buy a small shelf like this on Etsy and fill it with wrapped books. You could also do the shelf on the first night of Hanukkah, then add things to it every night.

You know what’s held up remarkably well is The Egypt Game. My 10-year-old recommends Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson, a modern classic.

  • Custom bookplates for writers, but also readers!


Custom bookplates + three hardcover books from the past year would be a LOVELY gift.

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted about searching for signable bookplates. @dennofpens got in touch and let me be a guinea pig for her new design company. I ADORE these, and they’re meaningful. (Makk means acorn in Hungarian.) Authors — hit her up!! 

  • A timeless classic: The Indie Bookstore Tote Bag

Many indie bookstores have gorgeous tote bags, and a tote stuffed with wrapped books is a very cool gift. These ones from Unabridged Bookstore are a classic.

  • A taste of Ireland

Tana French’s new Dublin Murder Squad book, The Searcher, plus Sally Rooney’s Normal People, plus fancy Irish tea and Irish wool socks.

  •  Have way too much fun with a theme

    I love this Goodreads list of books with years for titles. Give someone 1066 AND ALL THAT, and 1491, and 1776, and 1968, and 1984, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Wrap them in calendar pages.

  • A Little Free Library would be an amazing gift for someone with a yard!


Fill it with wrapped books for that person, and they can refill it with ones they’ve read.

  • Box sets for kids

 This Puffin Books one would be great for a 10-year-old OR for a newborn who can grow into them all.

  • Very small classics, for stockings or advent calendars or tiny care packages

The Pocket Penguins series is gorgeous AND they have a lot of classics in translation.

  • A collection of essay collections

Samatha Irby and Lindy West both have new essay collections out this year, and they’d go really well together. 

  • An inscribed book

It’s not hard to get most authors to inscribe books to your friends/family, and most of us will even write out inside jokes or whatever! Tweet an author to ask what their local indie is; they can often go in and sign, and the store can ship.

  •  If you’re able to safely gather extended family for holidays

Instead of place cards, put a book at each seat, chosen for each specific guest. You could go with first names (a Julie Otsuka novel for your Aunt Julie) or with topics specific to the person…books set in cities where they’ve lived, etc. Once people guess their seat, they get to keep the book. Good conversation starter, too.

  • If you know a lot of authors personally

Every year we give my Mother-In-Law a stack of books by authors I know. Renée Rosen was a huge hit. You get to namedrop and THEN your relative gets to namedrop!

  • Nostalgia, but make it fancy


You know what adults love? Find out their favorite childhood book and then get a gorgeous hardcover illustrated version for them. Michael Hague is one of my favorite illustrators, so I’ll link to his Nutcracker here. It’d also be good just for kids.

  • A gift for the classroom…whenever the kids can go back to them

I love picking up books for my kids’ classrooms or their school, and if you dropped off a box of the Who Was books for any elementary teacher or school librarian you’d pretty much make their year.

  •  The LONG-awaited second book from Ally Brosh


I’m sure you all know this, but the LONG-awaited second book from Ally Brosh is out, and you should order it now before they run out of copies.

  • Certain indies are GREAT on stocking stuffers…

and they need your money more than Target. Jewelry, baby onesies, Moleskines, pens, magnets, postcards, literary socks, toys, mugs, cool matchbooks, etc. If you’re lucky enough to live near The Vermont Book Shop, you’re all set.

  • Some bookstores have amazing jigsaw puzzle and game collections

Lake Forest Book Store keeps me so happy!

  • If you have a family member you can’t stop arguing with politically

Ezra Klein’s new book would be both an olive branch and, probably, an education…

  • An alphabet of books

 If you really wanted to flood someone with books, go through your indie and pick out an alphabet full — 26 books, from authors of every letter. I’ll help you with the hard letters:

Here’s Q…

Here’s Z:

Here’s X:

  • Biographies of all the presidents…except 45

You could also besiege someone with biographies of every OTHER president who’s not this one. I dare you to give someone 44 biographies. This person’s blog is impressively exhaustive.

  • Some premium spices to go with that cookbook


I’m a huge fan of Spice House in Chicago. (I actually stand by their Hungarian paprika, and I’m a SNOB.) Raid the cookbook section of your indie, then order relevant spices in bottles or small flatpacks (easy for shipping) as go-withs.

  • For Indigenous Peoples Day

I’m adding this strong recommendation (Louise Erdrich!) for any middle grade reader in your life. I used to do this as a read-aloud when I taught ages 6-9; would work for about 9-12 for kids reading on their own.

  • For recent adult indigenous fiction

if you want to think beyond There, There (which you should read!) try Brandon Hobson’s 2018 NBA finalist, Where The Dead Sit Talking.


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