15 Authors We Love on the Best Gifts of Their Lives

December 12, 2016

Day 18 of 30 Days of Thoughtful Giving:

We asked some of the most insightful people we could think of—a group of our favorite fiction and non-fiction novelists, journalists, and essayists—to tell us the best gifts they've ever received. You won't find their answers in gift guides or in our Shop.

Read on to find out who held council with a live lion, who holds a rubber model of an ear close to her heart, and who falls asleep with a shrimp wrapped around her neck.

Photo by James Ransom

My wife bought me a beautiful Taylor acoustic guitar and somehow kept it a complete surprise. That was big for me because I think I'd conditioned myself to think that I generally didn't want or need anything I didn't already have—but wow, did I ever (turns out) want that guitar.

George Saunders, whose new book is available for presale now

Photo by James Ransom

Well... this isn't a gift I was able to keep, but it was definitely a good one: I had just started going out with my now-husband, and Valentine's Day was upon us. I wasn't sure how he would celebrate the event (flowers? Perfume? Flowers and perfume?) so I was a little keyed up. He announced that he had gotten us tickets for "The Lion King," since he knows I love animals. I thought it was very sweet, even though the tickets were for another night, so I still wondered how we were going to mark the momentous occasion of our first Valentine's Day together.

I was so flabbergasted that I couldn't speak for about five full minutes.
Susan Orlean

As the day wore on, I started feeling a little peeved, especially when John mentioned that he had invited a friend over (definitely not what I pictured for a romantic first-time Valentine's Day night.) When the doorbell rang, I answered it in a sulk. It took a minute for it to sink in, but the guest at the door was not a friend: It was a young lion (and two lion handlers, for good measure). A. Young. Lion. Two hundred pounds of pure muscle, extraordinary beauty, and killer appetite (he gulped down two whole raw chickens in about ten seconds flat). I was so flabbergasted that I couldn't speak for about five full minutes.

I'll probably never be as close to a wild animal again (nor am I likely to ever have a wild animal larger than a mouse in my New York City apartment). It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. And riding down the elevator with the lion was pretty extraordinary, too (my neighbors will never forget, I'm sure). For the record, John did indeed get us tickets to "The Lion King," too.

Susan Orlean, author and staff writer at the New Yorker

I try to snap up little things year-round that remind me of people, because in my experience these are the best to receive, too! (In theory it takes the stress out of gift-buying, too... although I still haven't figured out a consistent hiding place, and often come across things years later!)

A few gifts I've especially loved: a rubber ear model sold as an acupuncture guide; a pocket knife engraved with my name; a striped Jonathan Adler pillbox that says "Dolls" on it; and, most recently, a 1970s Polish Seven Brides for Seven Brothers poster that my husband knew I had loved for years. Some of the most meaningful gifts have also been small things that belong to loved ones—an old ivory wax-seal I had always admired at my grandmother's house, or a miniature dictionary in the home of an old friend. I guess what it all comes down to is people having taken the time to notice things about someone else.

I guess what it all comes down to is people having taken the time to notice things about someone else.
Sadie Stein

I would add, I tend to like small gifts rather than large ones. I mean that literally—in New York, at least, most of us don't have a ton of space, and I'd always rather have something little than big, be it a bottle, a candle, something to eat or drink, even a single glass or hankie. That's a question of philosophy, but for me a small thing that's been picked out feels more precious and special.

Sadie Stein, writer and contributing editor of The Paris Review

The best gift I've ever received is a framed copy of the final sentence in my favorite book (Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison). It hangs over my writing desk.

Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers

When I moved into my first solo New York apartment, my dad sent me a kitchen gadget starter kit: "small implements to seed the drawers in your new kitchen," taken from my parents' own "excess inventory." Enclosed in a box he shipped from California, he included a note detailing every item—from the condition of the digital probe thermometer's battery (new!) to the make of the small paring knife (Chicago Cutlery). I still use them all, including a "green plastic thingy for doing something with kiwifruit."

Silvia Killingsworth, editor of The Awl and The Hairpin

It brought joy and staved off despair.
Rachel Khong

Last Christmas, my coworkers/friends Aralyn and Chris bought me a neck pillow that looks like shrimp, and it quickly became my most prized office possession. I took to wearing it during Lucky Peach deadlines like a security blanket—sometimes over my waist, cummerbund-style—because it brought joy and staved off despair.

Rachel Khong, former Lucky Peach editor, whose debut novel Goodbye, Vitamin arrives in July

Yes, it's real!
And you can have one, too!

A decade ago, I wrote a book called The Genius Factory about the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, a bizarre yet entirely real 1980s scheme to breed a cadre of superbabies. After the book came out, an acquaintance of mine sent me this gift. It's a Fitter Families Medal. In the 1920s, state fairs awarded medals to the most eugenically superior families. The winners were paraded through the grounds along with prize cattle, pigs, and horses. I display it my living room, front side out, so you can read the motto: "Yea, I have goodly heritage."

David Plotz, CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of Slate's Political Gabfest

My wife once hired a cartoonist to do a 10-panel comic about how we met. It was amazing. We still have framed in our apartment. Also I think she told the cartoonist to give me a little more muscle definition than I actually have, so it's very flattering in that way too.

AJ Jacobs, journalist, lecturer, and author, most recently, of Drop Dead Healthy

At the risk of sounding like an insane person...
Emma Straub

At the risk of sounding like an insane person, the very best gift I ever received was when, at age 20, my mother gave me a ripped-up disposable camera, the cardboard body of which had been signed by New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre. I burst into tears. What can I say? True love never dies.

Emma Straub, whose most recent book is Modern Lovers

A couple of years ago, I suddenly got interested in sewing, though I'd never used a sewing machine or learned even basic stitches. So for the Christmas of 2014, my husband—who likes nothing, and I mean nothing, more than being given a wish list and sent to secondhand stores—tracked down and bought me a Bernina 730 Record. It's the sewing machine equivalent of a vintage Mercedes: made to be passed down, almost entirely metal, built like a tank. (He was advised in his purchase by Keli Faw of Drygoods Design, a sewing studio in Seattle, and because Keli is a saint, she also taught me how to use the thing.) My first project was making new everyday napkins.

Molly Wizenberg, writer, blogger, and restaurateur

Just before I went on book tour for the first time, my husband gave me an 8-foot long phone-charging cable. At the time, I think I nodded and smiled politely—but every single time I travel (a fair amount, now), I bless that cable. My phone keeps me sane on the road—I catch up on email, post on Twitter, text my husband and best friends when lonely, Facetime with my kid—plus, it plays music to help me sleep and is my alarm clock, to boot. In most hotel rooms, there's no plug by the bed; in most airports, there are no seats by charging stations. I stretch it all the way across the room so I can watch Netflix in bed; I've had total strangers tell me how genius it is as they crouch awkwardly next to an outlet. That cable keeps me charged (and connected) and I love it.

Celeste Ng, whose debut novel is Everything I Never Told You (and she'll be out with another this coming fall)

I can name it off the top of my head—it has changed my life every morning and every night! It's a Krups Milk Frother that my husband gave me last Mother's Day.

I take a lot of milk in my coffee in the mornings and used to heat it in the microwave and try to froth it a bit with a mini-whisk. I use fat-free milk which stays pretty flat no matter what. Until the frother arrived!

It has changed my life every morning and every night!
Elaine Sciolino

I use the latte setting in the morning—half coffee (either espresso made in an old-fashioned Italian espresso maker or French roast in a drip maker), half frothed milk. Better than any Starbucks I ever had and reminds me of my days at my favorite café when I lived in Rome. On sleepless nights, I heat up milk on hot setting and pour in a few drops of vanilla extract—perfect with a shortbread cookie to help fall asleep. So I think pleasant thoughts about my husband both morning and night!

I'm teaching at Princeton next semester and I'm so spoiled, I'm thinking of buying a 120-volt version for the U.S. It's part of my daily morn-and-eve ritual...

Elaine Sciolino, former Paris Bureau Chief of the New York Times and author of The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs

Krups Milk Frother

The year I tearily emerged from the fog of parenting two young children, my husband gave me a platinum chainsaw necklace for Christmas. Sometimes people look at me a little funny because they think I am a hardcore fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not! Instead, this necklace is a reminder that I yelled my way through natural childbirth (twice!), I butchered a cow (with very sharp knives and ten strapping dudes), and that I've made three meals a day for thirteen years, I wear it when I need a little extra strength. I hold onto it when I am not breathing deeply. These days, I'm not taking it off at all. I even wear it to bed.

Phyllis Grant, writer, photographer, and recipe developer (read her essay in Best Food Writing 2015)

"Tiny But Deadly" Chainsaw Necklace

In April of 1998, I met a woman, and we fell madly in love. Two months later, I left, without Blair, on a monthlong bike trip through France. I mailed her postcards along the way. From countryside Michelin one-stars. From small-town brasseries. From Parisian museums. One of the postcards depicted Duchamp’s famous readymade bottle rack, first displayed in 1914. On the card, imagining our life together, I scrawled something like, "We should get one of these."

That December, Blair presented me with a bottle rack of my own, suitable for holding the wine bottles we would empty together. It lacked Duchamp’s imprimatur, but it did come necklaced with Charlie Brown Christmas tree lights. That next June, we married.

John T. Edge, author of The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South

I’ve received some exquisite gifts over the years from friend and globetrotting author, Frances Mayes—everything from her vibrant extra-virgin Bramasole olive oil to a selection of vintage serving pieces Frances collected during her market visits throughout Tuscany. But one day, for no particular reason, she sent me a small box with a note: “I don’t know why a purple juicer makes me think of you,” she wrote, “but it does.” The Old Julian Pottery piece from North Carolina makes my kitchen brighter, especially on winter days when the rhythmic smashing and twisting of fresh citrus jazzes up the air. I would have never thought that a purple juicer would make me think of Frances, but it does and remains one of my favorite gifts ever.

Kim Sunée, author of Trail of Crumbs and A Mouthful of Stars

What's been the best gift of your life? Tell us in the comments.

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  • Mary Anne Shuffler
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    Cara Christopher
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Mary A. December 15, 2016
I thought my children needed to learn to be thoughtful and give gifts. At Christmas, I would give them $20, take them to the mall so they could shop for gifts for us. My son, who was about 8, gave a small nail clipper that said "Don't Mess with Texas"...It was so random and....thoughtful.... in an 8 year old boy sort of way. I kept it with me at work for years. It always made me smile. I was really sad when it got lost at some point, but for the past 25 years, I always have a small nail clipper with my paper clips on my desk. I always think of Scott and I still smile...
Cara C. December 12, 2016
Nice compilation and gift ideas! Two of my favorite gifts... One of my friends took a cartoonish picture I draw to represent myself and had a personalized wax seal set made from it. So unique and personalized. Another awesome gift I got was from my current partner for our 2 year anniversary, he had some of my favorite crystals wirewrapped together into an exquisite pendant.