1. The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White
Bonus points if it’s the version of this classic that’s illustrated by the luminous Maira Kalman; that’ll make it feel more like a keepsake and less like a standard-issue textbook (albeit a wonderful one) on the first day of sophomore English Lit.
2. This Is Water, by David Foster Wallace
This legendary speech was given by the late David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College and contains the kind of simple yet staggeringly important advice that any high school/college/grad school student/actually human, in general, would benefit from thinking about for at least a few minutes.
“It is,” the speech ends, “about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: ‘This is water, this is water.’”
3. How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman
This’ll come in handy for anyone going off to college with the good fortune of having a kitchen to cook in, or (more likely), for a college graduate who all of a sudden realizes they can’t roll into the dining hall every time they want a cheesy bagel and fries anymore. And there are several variations on the original, like a vegetarian version.
5. Fantastic Mistakes, by Neil Gaiman
Another fabulous speech like DFW’s, this one touches in particular on making things and living a creative life. Also, it was designed by Chip Kidd, who probably art directed every book cover you’ve ever liked.
6. How to Be a Person, by Lindy West et al.
This book is equal parts life-endingly hilarious and legitimately useful advice from past and present staff of The Stranger, many of whom are among my very favorite writers. There’s a lot about sex and a lot about how not to die, both of which are equally useful when it comes to propagating the species.
7. Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, by Dr. Seuss
You thought I was going to put this under graduation gifts, didn’t you? You were all ready to scroll down to the comments and internet-yell about this egregious oversight, right? RIGHT??!
Look, this is basically the quintessential grad gift of our culture; I had it read at both my fifth-grade and high school graduation ceremonies, and I’ve seen countless copies given to peers at all stages of life. And that makes sense! It’s a lovely book with a deceptively simple message about going off into the world and finding yourself. But there are so many other interesting, useful books that can be given when someone is ending one part of their life and beginning another (see above, plus infinity more), so why not try and give this book a new context as well? If given at a baby shower or an early birthday, this kind of thinking can help set the tone for a kid’s life. (Okay yeah that’s a tall order but only a HEARTLESS TROLL would argue that the sentiment in this classic isn’t wonderful.) And it’s a great reminder for parents, too, that amazing changes and adventures aren’t just for the little ones.
8. Pat the Bunny, by Dorothy Kunhardt
It’s so tactile! So pleasant! So thick that even the most stubborn teether probably won’t be able to ruin it forever!
9. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, by Bill Martin Jr. & Eric Carle
All Eric Carle books are totally safe bets for baby showers and birthdays, but this one is especially enchanting because of its singsong rhyme scheme.
10. Jamberry, by Bruce Degen
Ditto this book, which is under-the-rader but well-loved enough that the parent(s)-to-be will probably be all “Ahhh totally forgot about this but it’s SO PERFECT, wanna be the baby’s godparent?” and you can blush modestly and start planning the kid’s first trip to Disney World.
12. The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Not only is this, in my opinion, one of the very best books to read aloud with kids, it’s a great little breath of fresh air for adults as well. And it’s one of those books that it doesn’t seem possible to have too many copies of.
13. How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum, by Keri Smith
This is a beautifully strange, engaging way of finding art and wonder in all things; it’s great for realigning perspectives and would be a perfect gift for anyone who looks at the world a little differently.
14. Extra Yarn, by Mac Barnett & Jon Klassen
Great for a kid who’s just started to craft or an adult who’s been doing it for a long, long time. Plus it won the Caldecott so you know that it’s beyond beautiful.
15. Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger
Flavorwire call this a “foolproof” book to give as a gift and I am in total agreement; they’re bound to find at least one moment in one of the sweet, sad stories that resonates (and probably many more). It’s the perfect pocket-sized (literally, in the case of all the current in-print editions) Salinger.
16. The Bust DIY Guide to Life, by Laurie Henzel & Debbie Stoller
Do you have a friend who likes making stuff? Or wants to learn to make stuff? Or knows how to make some stuff but not other stuff? Or just generally appreciates down-to-earth, funny, useful writing? Get them this book.
17. The Selby Is in Your Place.
This book is riddled with beautiful photos of beautiful people in their beautiful homes and is a really efficient way to make someone else feel bad about the direction their life has gone in. NAHH JK it’s actually full of inspiring design and decor ideas, and smells awesome (at least my copy does).
18. I [LEGO] N.Y., by Christoph Niemann
Okay, so it’s incredibly specific, but if someone you know happens to be moving to or from New York, this is such a charming way to introduce them to the city/induce severe nostalgia.
19. Paris Versus New York, by Vahram Muratyan
EVEN MORE SPECIFIC: know any Paris-New York transplants? How about New York-Paris? Great, this book just bought itself.
(And the illustrations are so witty and eye-catching that this will serve as a lovely, compact coffee table book no matter where in the world your gift recipient happens to live.)
20. I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, by Amy Sedaris
Once you have that dream home you have to use it to entertain guests, right? Amy Sedaris is a goddess and just when you think she’s given you the most off-the-rails advice ever, she doubles down and gets even more insane. You may be tempted to keep this one for yourself.
21. Other People’s Love Letters, edited by Bill Shapiro
Whether it’s for your friend, your sibling, your future spouse or someone you’d like to be your future spouse, there is nothing more romantic than a little literary voyeurism.
22. What to Cook & How to Cook It: Fresh & Easy, by Jane Hornby
This tome is so beautiful it’s basically a coffee table book, but it’s also totally useful for newlyweds or people first moving in together who don’t have an ounce of cooking skillz between the two of them.
23. If you’re planning a wedding, books make beautiful, meaningful favors.
Or give them as bridesmaid/groomsmen gifts.
24. Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories.
Perfect for a kid going to sleepaway camp for the first time.
25. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, by Walker Percy
Perfect for the person who needs (satirical) help with literally everything.
26. What I Hate From A to Z, by Roz Chast
Perfect for your resident lovable misanthrope.
27. Dog Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant
A BuzzFeed editor says that her family gives this book to people they’re close with who have recently lost pets (there’s a cat version as well), and that it’s always appreciated among kids and grownups alike.
28. Great Jewish Women, by Elinor & Robert Slater
For the recently bat mitzvah’d.
30. The Emergency Gift Book, published by Potter Style
The most meta gift book you could possibly give, this’ll ensure that its recipient will never be caught giftless at a birthday or bridal shower again. Again: nobody would fault you for keeping this for yourself.