This is the season of the balance sheet. I don’t mean the kind where you tabulate all your shining moments and painful shortcomings—we still have a few days left before you need to get that maudlin—but rather the post-holiday period when you finally get a good sense of how many people gave you gifts for whom you, in turn, had nothing. The friend who showed up at lunch with a little wrapped something, that family member who ignored the “let’s only buy for the kids this year” directive, a coworker who unexpectedly left a surprise on your desk… we know that giving isn’t a direct equation requiring perfect balance, and it’s not a contest to see who can be the most thoughtful. But every year there are those few folks you just didn’t think you’d be exchanging presents with, people you love and cherish (or at least like well enough) and would like to do right by.
But how to step up without looking pathetic? Nobody wants to think they put you in an awkward position; everyone secretly subscribes to the wishful thinking that generosity is instinctual, effortless, and always timely. When, in fact, the holiday season is generally fraught, scattered, short-funded, and forgetful. And inevitably there comes a disheartening moment of empty-handedness. Several, perhaps.
So: Keep cool, affect a knowing and humble smile, and then run home, get online, and buy that kind person a subscription to something good. It won’t show up for a few weeks, but think about it—they never do anyway, even when you’ve had the forethought to set them up on time. Your recipient will eventually be surprised, and hopefully pleased. And what you missed in terms of timeliness you will more than make up for with the gentle reminder in their mailbox, all through the year, that you really do care.
Since this is that kind of a blog, and since Like Fire readers presumably have those kinds of friends, may we suggest the gift of a literary journal? OK, maybe not for everyone on your belated list—sometimes you don’t want to get much more adventurous than The Atlantic or National Geographic. But there’s a wide variety of great content in the lit mag world, and subscriptions are more reasonable than you might think. And your money is going to support a good cause, guaranteed sweatshop- and NRA support-free.
Whether or not the perfect title comes to mind right away, take a moment and browse The NewPages Big List of Literary Magazines. Oh… all right, it’ll be more than a moment. It could be an afternoon. The NewPages listing is one of the most pleasurable black holes of time I can think of, and if you don’t walk away from the computer with something for everyone on your list and a few unexpected subs for yourself as well, you probably are better off with something a little more mainstream. But really, how can you lose? Some journals are online only, but the majority have some form of deliverable, either in print or electronically, and most of them will run you under $25. It’s a great way to take a chance on turning friends onto something new, and for getting out of your own personal gift rut—I bet nobody else got your nephew a copy of Toad Suck Review, or a subscription to Paper Darts for your stepdaughter, or Agni for the old college roommate who who found you on Facebook.
If you’re looking for a little extra inspiration, check out Flavorwire’s feature on The Year’s Coolest Literary Magazine Innovations. Not all of them are giftable, but they’re all interesting (and if you aren’t following Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading by now, then lose no time in getting over there).
And though this doesn’t fall into the category of periodicals, in the spirit of holiday hindsight Two Dollar Radio is offering its Santa Fucked Up sale through the first of the year—two books for $20—and I, for one, am biting. I’m sure there was someone else I forgot to buy for… at any rate, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.