Gifts and Recommendations

Gifts are a problem for minimalists. A well-meaning gesture can leave you stranded with an unsolicited material object: another slight infringement upon your space and liberty.

The oft-cited solution is to encourage consumable gifts, like meals, booze, tickets, charity donations, experiences, and fruit. This largely removes the material problem without having to cancel Christmas.

Today (and this will seem like a digression, but there is a point to this) I spent several hours reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I find this author’s work utterly absorbing; and, assuming I do not die before finishing this latest book, I’ll have read every one of his published works. The one I am reading now isn’t even released until next month, but I was able to acquire a rare pre-publication proof. That is how much I love this author.

I learned about Murakami from Laura. Her recommendation was a superb non-material gift. It cost no money and did not involve a material object, yet it had a profoundly personal affect and has been received with gratitude. Who knows how long it would have taken me to find this author otherwise? Perhaps when I found him of my own volition, it would have been too late. You have to come to some things at the right time.

Can recommendations be the true post-materialist alternative to gift-giving? A thoughtful recommendation can enrich a friend’s life in a similar way to a properly thoughtful gift without adding weight to their inventory.

Recommendations (of books, films, techniques, experiences, places) are strikingly similar things to gifts and, unfortunately, they come with precisely the same challenges. Just as a gift must be utilised or ornamented for a socially-acceptable period of time, there’s also an obligation to engage to some extent with a person’s recommendation.

In the past, I have found recommendations frustrating. They derail trains of thought, snag at attention spans, add items to to-do lists, increase expectational debt and anxiety. In 2010, I rather eccentrically planned my year’s reading in advance. Part of the reason was that I’d have an excuse not to accept people’s recommendations and to quickly change the subject: “Sorry, I can’t read that book. I’m doing this crazy reading experiment. Let me tell you about it…”

So recommendations don’t remove the social problem of gift-giving, but they can replace the material problem. Let’s try it. Have a pact with a friend to exchange recommendations (tailor-made for the particular individual) on birthdays instead of gifts. You’ve got a year to come up with the perfect recommendation so it shouldn’t be too trying. I imagine it will help you get to know your pals better and see how well they know you. If you want a material embodiment of this ‘gift’, you could write a library shelf-mark in a nice card.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

2 Responses to “Gifts and Recommendations”

  1. Peter Blair says:

    That is one of the most innovative and creative ideas I have heard in a long while.

    I think the challenge might lie more in finding friends who would agree with you that such gift giving practices were viable. Unless your friend is also trying to maintain a low possession threshold, it could be a frustrating topic (for both parties) to broach. I can even see some people I know possibly being offended by the suggestion.

  2. Yes, you definitely need an agreement with a like-minded friend. Or at least one who is willing to give this a go. But small victories will accumulate: if I can have this arrangement with one enthusiastic friend, we can talk about the practice with other friends in the pub. Before you know it, there’s a social contagion!

    It might be a bit of a wanky idea. Would you really want a book recommendation for a birthday present? Maybe not. There are long-term benefits to that kind of non-gift but you’d have to get over the desire for a big, nicely wrapped box on the big day. And if that’s something you really get off on – something that makes you feel loved – it would be a shame to stop the practice.

    A solution to unwanted gifts at least is the Universal Amazon Wish List. This could put an end to the receipt of novelty boxer shorts or scented candles. But it’s not yet a shift into non-material gift-giving.

Leave a Reply

Latest issues and offers


Issue 14

Our latest issue. Featuring interviews with Caitlin Doughty and the Iceman, with columns by McKinley Valentine, David Cain, Tom Hodgkinson, and Jacob Lund Fisker. 88 pages. £9.


Two-issue Subscription

Get the current and next issue of New Escapologist. 176 pages. £16.

Four-issue Subscription

Get the current and next three issues of New Escapologist. 352 pages. £36.

PDF Archive

Issues 1-13 in PDF format. Over a thousand digital pages to preserve our 2007-2017 archive. 1,160 pages. £25.