In praise of receiving book tokens this Christmas

Juliette Bowen 3 December 2016

There should, perhaps, be something disheartening about watching your siblings ripping apart wrapping paper, whilst you’re left prising open an envelope to get at what you already know is a book token. Five pounds from your mother’s aunt’s brother’s daughter, who’s clearly been informed that “she’s the one who reads”, and has therefore – fairly enough – saved herself the trouble of doing anything more than picking out the card with the cutest pattern. A lot of people, after hitching a smile onto their face and directing it at the appropriate person, later mumble that they’d rather have had the cash – or the giant chocolate Santa that was given to their sister, courtesy of her never having been seen within ten feet of a book.

But, as I am genuinely “the one who reads” – not just unlucky enough to have been incriminatingly spotted trailing a bookish friend around Foyles – receiving a book token is anything but a disheartening experience. I love getting books as presents: I love finding out what people think I’d like to read, or being given a copy of a friend’s favourite novel, or the latest best-seller that I’ve been obviously and jealously eyeing for weeks. Being bought a book always feels like being invited into a circle. Read this, it seems to say, so that we can be in it together.

Of course, a book token isn’t quite the same deal. It often doesn’t tell you much about the giver other than that they think you probably like to read. But that doesn’t stop it from being a pretty great gift – especially when you’re a student who has to consciously avoid looking at Waterstones’ window display because food is probably more important than a glossy hardback (and the fiver you could have spent on the paperback was exchanged for entry to Cindies two nights ago). That makes book tokens, these days, the excuse for actually stepping into the shop. And then, after taking that leap, you can buy any book you want – not something suggested to you by your supervisor, or on a reading list, or that your pretentious housemate has been dropping into conversation at every opportunity even though you secretly couldn’t care less.

In fact, in some ways, I can’t think of anything worse than having fought my way through every book the Cambridge term throws at me, only to have someone give me yet another book that I don’t really want to read all that much. And so a book token, although lacking in the initial thrill that comes with being given a festively wrapped present, is one of the most perfect things to find with your name on it.