A guide to choosing the perfect book for someone

No gift says it like a book, but how do you make sure it's saying something good? Here are some tactics for getting it right, whoever the lucky recipient may be.

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Nothing says I love you like a book. Unless it's a bad book. Or worse, a book your special someone has already read. That just says: “Listen, I've been quite busy lately and frankly I didn't have time to think, so I had to run into Waterstones on the way home from work and grab something from the 'what we're reading' table by the cashier and hope for the best.”

But get it right, and it can be the best gift you'll buy all year. Get it right, and you can show you truly know them, want to expand their world and award them hours of pleasure and intrigue. It also says you're a brilliant friend, who might just deserve the same in return. Here's some suggestions on how to choose the perfect book for someone.

Sneak about their bookshelves

First question: does your friend have a big book bookshelf, and do they organise it in a way that makes it easy see what's there and what's not? Like, say, alphabetical or by author. A jumbled shelf, where books are squeezed together wherever they fit in an amorphous line of confusion helps no one – not your friend, not their books, and certainly not you. But an organised friend is a gift in itself – just see what they're missing, in your opinion, and get them that.

Obviously, the Kindle is a major roadblock to this approach, so for e-reader obsessives you'll need to be far more devious, i.e. ask to borrow it for a couple of days because you're “thinking of reducing your carbon footprint and Kindle seems a smart way to save some trees.”

Find a little-known triumph by an author they rave about

So, your friend hasn't stopped banging on about how horizon-bendingly wonderful Margaret Atwood's The Testaments was for weeks. She obviously read The Handmaid's Tale, too, and devoured her Maddaddam trilogy. But what about a lesser-known triumph by the Booker-winning novelist to keep their Atwood passions alive? Her 1996 short story collection Dancing Girls and Other Stories, perhaps?

And if you're really struggling for inspiration, you can always fall back on the #askPenguin hashtag on Twitter. Pro tip: just tweet @PenguinUKBooks the name of an author and what you're looking for between 11am and midday on a Wednesday, and we'll give you a personalised book recommendation to suit your need.

What's going on in their life?

She's about to be a bridesmaid, again. He's just fallen in love. She's at the sharp end of an existential crisis and the right book could be just the rope to pull her out (suggestions, respectively: Better Single Than Sorry by Jennifer Schefft, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, HELP! By Oliver Burkeman). Whatever's going on in their life, there's always a book to reflect it.

With this approach, you're offering more than just a gift. It's both a statement of intent and an affirmation of your friendship. It says, “Hey mate, life is a long-old road trip and I'm riding shotgun all the way. Only, instead of a shotgun, I'm carrying a book, locked, loaded, and ready to save your life.”

What are their favourite films or TV shows?

Did you know Die Hard was based on a book? It's called Nothing Lasts Forever by an author named Roderick Thorpe, and it's resoundingly faithful to the original text (except the main character is not called John McLain but Joe Leland, and it's his daughter, not his wife, whom he's trying to save).

Point is, all the best movies are based on books. That's a frozen-hard fact which I've researched on the internet. Same goes for TV shows. And even if a show is (whisper it!) from an “original” script, you can bet there's a book that at least comes close.

So next time your friend or family member raves about a film or TV show they love, take note... it'll come in handy when Christmas comes around, or their birthday, or when you next need to say sorry.

Do they like beautiful things?

So your friend may not be a huge reader, but they sure know how to colour-coordinate a bookshelf for maximum Instagram-ability. They're more aesthete than intellectual, and like to surround themselves with beautiful things because a beautiful home is a beautiful mind and who is any of us to say anything about that?

There is no end of beautifully bound, special edition books on the market – the ones that smell of ancient libraries and forgotten memories. Then there's anything designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, best-known for her Penguin clothbound classics series. It's been said before on this website, and we'll say it again: it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a book-lover in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a beautiful book.

Just... ask them

“Hey Hannah, apropos of nothing really,” you nonchalantly drop into conversation on a socially distant park walk, “if there was one book in the world that you'd like to read but never did, what would it be? Mine's, I dunno... Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle because I just... y'know, want more pleasure in my life. But what about you?”

The secret to this method is planning. You need to ask them enough in advance of your gifting day that they'll forget you ever asked. Then, when the day comes, they'll be bowled over by how well you know them.

You could even dilute the intensity of the confrontation by throwing a dinner party with friends, wait until your target has knocked back a few and ask everyone around the table, while surreptitiously taking notes. This is a high-risk strategy, of course, as you may just be reminding them of a book they want to read, which they'll go out and buy the next day. But pull it off, and you're a Christmas miracle... and in the good books for months.

What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk for a chance to appear in our reader’s letter page.

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