Why do we buy books for Christmas?

Relatives produce works of the sheerest horror - depressing revelations of their perception of you
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"UNCLE PHILIP," my niece - blond curls, blue eyes, the works - was saying to me the other day. "What would you like for Christmas?"

"God, I don't know," I said. "Anything you like, sweetheart."

"Would you like a book?" she said.

"Anything you like," I said, wondering whether what I really needed was another book.

"What would you like?" she said. "What sort of book?"

"Well," I said. "A really good Persian dictionary would be nice. Or a copy of one of Robert Liddell's novels, one of the early ones. Or Kaye's history of the first Afghan war, not the first edition, the third one, the 1857 edition with all the footnotes. Or the first volume of the new catalogue raisonne of Paul Klee. Or Teddy Sheringham's autobiography. Or a reliable edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Or a copy of Greenmantle to replace the one I left on the train this morning. Or...

It was too late; she was off in a corner, as Dorothy Parker puts it, necking with Morpheus, and my chance to get what I really wanted for Christmas was reduced to nil.

Why do people buy books for Christmas? Surely everyone knows that they're the most personal things in the world, things that you would hardly trust your nearest and dearest to come up with. Even given the strictest possible instructions, people are always apt to produce the wrong thing.

After drilling a member of your family for weeks, you open the package on Christmas Day, and they have somehow contrived to give you, instead of a copy of Greenmantle, one of Mr Standfast. And, in any case, it hardly seems within the spirit of Christmas to tell your nearest and dearest exactly what you want and how much they should pay for it.

But without strict instructions, friends, lovers and relations are apt to produce offerings of the sheerest horror - faintly depressing revelations, not of their character exactly, but of their perception of yours.

For some reason, people were always giving me comic novels when I was a boy, and it was always a great struggle not to explain to the well intentioned gift-giver that I had no sense of humour, and would really prefer not to be put under an obligation to read a novel set on a university campus, in which the purchasing of condoms played any part at all, or in which the ordinary English words for the genitalia were misheard to comically catastrophic effect, even if The Daily Telegraph reviewer recommended that the novel in question should not be read in a public place.

You sit down on Christmas afternoon and, chocolate-filled and half-nauseous, gazing at Nigel Williams's best efforts, succumb to the familiar sense that la vie est triste, helas! Et j'ai lu tous les livres.

And yet a quarter of all books sold in this country are sold in the run- up to Christmas.

These are books bought, not for yourself, or out of curiosity, but mostly in the vague sense that "this will do, won't it?" Gift books, in short; books without content, Country Diaries of an Edwardian Lady, and, as Italo Calvino put it: "Books you needn't read, books made for purposes other than reading, books read even before you open them since they belong to the category of books read before being written." Cookbooks; travel books; books of television series; scripts - I'm not making this up - of situation comedies; and, if you feel like a novel, it is most likely to be a sequel to a sequel of a sequel.

Nobody, except the most raving eccentric, would give Dead Souls or La Vie: Mode d'Emploi as a Christmas present, so the genre of Christmas books is invented. The most long-lived of these is the amazing phenomenon of Francis Gay. Most people seem never to have heard of Francis Gay, but every year the books that appear under his name - I expect it is more or less a fictitious trademark of the publisher's invention - make it into the best-seller charts.

There is a little poem, or a half-comic, half-moralising anecdote for every day of the year; uplifting photographs of lambs and daffodils; there is a vaguely Scottish flavour to the whole enterprise. I promise you, it is enough to make you puke. But they sell like billy-oh, and have been doing for decades, in spite of the fact that you have never seen one in anybody's house. Are they kept, like pornography, in drawers? Or perhaps they constitute the Platonic ideal of the Christmas book; perhaps they are given, a thank-you letter is sent, and the Friendship Book of Francis Gay 1999 dispatched smartly into the waste-paper bin.

All in all, I must say, I would rather have some nice socks, though I haven't entirely given up on the prospect of the really good Persian dictionary.