11 January 2008

Here is a story about Christmas and its most important part, getting books.

This year, LibraryThing ran an event called SantaThing.  It was essentially a Secret Santa event-- all the participants paid $25 to LibraryThing, who then connected all of the participants to one another.  You could post comments about what you wanted, and then your SantaThinger would select books for you, which LibraryThing would order off Amazon-- so no exchanging of addresses with Internet strangers.  You were limited in your purchases to books available from the appropriate regional Amazon (US, UK, or Canada), worth less than $20 total, and numbering no more than two.

I decided to sign up because it sounded like it could be fun-- I love picking books, and I love getting books even more!  This is what I put:

The authors currently on my "target list" are (hold your breath): Edwin Abbot, Paul Auster, Beryl Bainbridge, Iain Banks, James Blish, Octavia E. Butler, Italo Calvino, Paul Cornell, Lawrence Durrell, C.S. Forester, Elizabeth George, David Gerrold, James Hamilton-Paterson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hardy, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem, Doris Lessing, David Lodge, Scott McCloud, Walter M. Miller Jr., Alan Moore, Christopher Morley, Larry Niven, Dan Simmons, Ali Smith, E.E. "Doc" Smith, Neal Stephenson, Karen Traviss, and P.G. Wodehouse. Basically, any book I don't already own by these folks would be marvelous.  No Star Trek or Star Wars or Doctor Who or other media tie-ins. If I wanted it, I would've bought it myself.
I know, it's a lot, but I didn't want to limit anyone.  I figured that with that many, one of those authors had to be a favorite of whoever my SantaThinger was, and that there had to be a beloved book by them I didn't already own.  (The wonderful thing about LibraryThing is that you know you are not going to buy someone a book they already own.)

Meanwhile, I was selecting a book for someone else.  This is what he put:
I like urban fantasy, histories of food, surreal comedies, mysteries (if the protagonists have a sense of humor)....what I'd really like to try is some world lit. I have always read mostly American / Western European authors & there is a whole wide world out there that I'm missing.  Please, please no sports books. Or anything with World War II.
Talk about broad!  The first thing to pop into mind for "surreal comedy" was James Hamilton-Paterson's Cooking with Fernet Branca, which I read last semester in Dr. Hardesty's modern British literature class and thought vastly amusing.  Plus, the protagonist is a sports biographer and hates it, so I figured that would be appropriate.  That came up to just $10.17, so I decided to find another book-- something non-Western, to fulfill one of his other desires.

The problem is that, on a normal Amazon discount, a normal trade paperback comes to $10.17!  It was impossible to find a second book of the appropriate price!  The other problem was that I'm not very familiar with non-Western literature, so I didn't know what to suggest.  But, thanks to my Kafka class from a year ago, I had heard of the author of Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami, so on a whim I decided to get one of his books.  As luck would have it, his book A Wild Sheep Chase seemed to be surreal and a detective story, fulfilling a number of my SantaThingee's desires!

But it was $10.17.  I searched for ages for something cheaper, but with no success.  Finally, I gave in and just plunked both into my request, figuring that I wasn't even fifty cents over the twenty-dollar limit, and who could get bothered about that?

Meanwhile (this was late December after all), my Aunt Janet had contacted me-- she had me in the family gift exchange this year, and were there any books I particularly wanted?  I sent her my target list, a list of authors (usually with specific books attached) that I search for every time I enter a used bookstore.  Obviously there was some overlap with my SantaThing author list, but I figured that with such large lists, the possibility of coincidence was low.

My book from SantaThing showed up a couple days before Christmas Eve-- James Blish's A Case of Conscience.  This is what my SantaThinger (LibraryThing's sysadmin, actually!) wrote me:
I have agonised over this. I'm recommending A Case of Conscience by James Blish, ISBN 0345438353.

This user lists James Blish as one of the authors they're after. They also have several of his books - star trek novelisations!! And yet they *don't* have this book, a hugo award winner and (IMHO) one of the best examples of "good" sci-fi. I had some reservations because it's not a very long book, and at $19 I've put all my bets on the one horse. As well as this, religion (specifically catholicism) is central to the plot, and so some knowledge in this area would be helpful. Still, this is all about surprises and the opportunity to read something you might otherwise not have picked up off the shelf, right? ;)

Here's a note for the recipient:

Hi! I noticed you're after more from James Blish, but don't have "A Case of Conscience". This is one of my favourite SF books so it seems like a good choice. It's unconventional sci-fi - it explores the concept of morality with a Jesuit biologist as the main character - but it's well written with believable characters, and a worthy winner of the Hugo award. I hope you enjoy it!
He needn't've worried!  I read Blish's The Devil's Day a few months back, and A Case of Conscience was one of the other two books in his loose After Such Knowledge sequence-- essentially, it or Doctor Mirabilis were the books I had meant when I put "James Blish" down on my target list!  As as for Catholic/Jesuit knowledge... well, I certainly have no shortage of that.

My selections were approved, but I don't know what my SantaThingee thought of them; he never contacted me.  In fact, they haven't even been added into his library!  But then, neither has anything else since November.

Meanwhile, on Christmas Eve, my Aunt Janet did well-- I received the next two of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley mysteries-- Deception on His Mind and In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner-- as well as Ursula K. Le Guin's Tales from Earthsea.  All not only books I wanted, but books I really wanted.  Aunt Janet reported that she had fun perusing the used bookstore as well, and she'd even figured out my list's organizational system.

And luckily enough there was no overlap.  I hope SantaThing is run next year as well, for I found it good, solid fun.

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