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.