Meet Christmas Dad – the hardest person on Earth to buy for | Publishing

Meet Christmas Dad – the hardest person on Earth to buy for | Publishing

Earlier this year, Waterstones Dad enjoyed a brief but burning moment in the sun. The description, coined by Gavin Jacobson in the New Statesman, referred to a very specific type of man – centrist, politically non-partisan, misses Jeremy Paxman – whose primary personality trait is formed by the type of books he reads.

Books in his collection include Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, How to Be Right by James O’Brien, Ben Ansell’s Why Politics Fails and Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland. It will come as no surprise to anyone that, as a middle-aged man, Waterstones Dad avoids fiction like the plague.

Now, I have a few issues with the concept of Waterstones Dad, not least the sneering reference to Waterstones, a bookshop I love and will defend to the death. The bigger issue, however, is this: unless you live in the microscopic media bubble full of centrist floating voters who read Harari and earn £90k a year, you have probably never met a Waterstones Dad in your life.

I spend a lot of time in Waterstones and the only dads I ever see there are extremely tired-looking men who stand around huffing “We’re here to buy books, not toys” and “You’ve already got all the Bunny vs Monkey books”. My theory is that Waterstones Dad doesn’t actually exist. But his close relative does and, as we speak, he represents the real powerhouse demographic of the moment. Let me introduce you to Christmas Dad.

Christmas Dad is a lot more vaguely defined than Waterstones Dad. He might be on £90k, but then again he might be on £20k. He might be retired. He could live anywhere in the country, and he exists across the political spectrum. In fact, his only real defining trait is that he is a dad. At this time of year, it feels as if the entire publishing industry has been set up to cater exclusively for him. But don’t be fooled. It hasn’t. Instead, it has been set up to cater exclusively for people who have to buy him a present soon.

The Bookseller’s Top 50 chart is the perfect microcosm of what it is to be a Christmas Dad. A few weeks ago there was a Jack Reacher book at No 3 and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s self-help book at No 4. A Richard Osman. A Jeremy Clarkson. Patrick Stewart’s autobiography. The book David Mitchell wrote about the monarchy. Tim Peake’s space book. Elsewhere you’ll find Private Eye annuals, books written by the stars of Gary Lineker’s booming podcast stable and a behavioural manual entitled Surrounded By Idiots. And it will stay this way until January, when Christmas Dad will finally cede the spotlight to his perennial successor, Post-Christmas Self-Improvement Mum.

So many books. So many dads. However, the key thing to remember about most of these titles is that Christmas Dad won’t actually buy any of them for himself. While Waterstones Dad was brimming with a desire to improve himself, Christmas Dad has almost no agency whatsoever. But that doesn’t mean he won’t receive any of these books. He will. He’ll receive pretty much all of them, often in multiple quantities. He’ll open them on Christmas morning, raise his eyebrows with well-practised gratitude, mumble: “Oh, I’ve been meaning to read this,” and then put them to one side so that he can play with the drone he bought for himself three weeks earlier.

There is a good reason behind this glut of Christmas Dad books, one that gets straight to the beating heart of what it is to have a father. Dads are, by several leagues, the hardest people on Earth to buy Christmas presents for. This is admittedly a very broad-strokes characterisation, but in my experience dads just go and buy things that they want because they lack the patience to wait and receive them as gifts. They’re less demonstrative than the other members of their family, too, so they’re less likely to express an explicit desire to receive anything specific.

And woe betide the dad who dares to have an actual hobby. My dad, for example, is a keen angler. For years, this meant that every Christmas present he ever received was fish-themed. Pictures of fish. Ceramic fish. Ties shaped like fish, even though he was a plumber and therefore had no practical need for them. With the benefit of hindsight, I would have clocked the slight twitch in his eye as he unwrapped yet another fish-themed gift, and understood the intense pain that came from only being known to his loved ones as The Fish Guy.

Googling “gifts for dad” is no better. That simply results in a torrent of USB mug warmers, multitool key rings and clocks shaped like hubcaps; single-use novelty gifts that cannot help but deliver the message: “You are the most important man in my entire life, but I have no idea who you actually are.”

So books it is. And, if you’ve ever received books as a gift, you’ll know what a high-wire act this can be. Book preference is a nuanced, highly specific thing. To return to my dad, he likes the sort of fantasy books that come with illustrated maps at the front. But that isn’t to say he likes all fantasy books that have illustrated maps at the front. One year I tried to buy him exactly this sort of book, and discovered that he only likes a very narrow band of fantasy books with illustrated maps at the front. Stray out of his comfort zone, even by a millimetre, and you may as well have bought him a Mills & Boon for all the good it will do.

So isn’t it better to just pick something new and popular? There’s plenty to choose from. This October alone, there were hundreds of new releases catering to every kind of dad. For the classic dads, Nicholas Shakespeare has written a biography of Ian Fleming. For hipster dads, Johnny Marr has written a book about all his guitars. For older hipster dads, Philip Norman has written a book about George Harrison. For dads too intimidating to approach at the school gates, Rudy Reyes from SAS: Who Dares Wins has written a “life philosophy” entitled Hero Living. For dads with more than one offspring (one of whom has already bought him the new Jeremy Clarkson), Kaleb Cooper has written a book. For my dad specifically (stop reading now please Dad), Paul Whitehouse has written a new book about fishing.

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I recently gave my dad a copy of The Rest Is History, the printed spinoff to the podcast hosted by Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland. The man absolutely wolfed it down. He’d never heard the podcast before, but the book’s tone – bitty, authoritative pop history – was like a cruise missile aimed directly at his brain stem.

A few weeks later, we went to see Sandbrook and Holland’s live show at the Hammersmith Apollo, and it was basically a homecoming for people like him. Thousands and thousands of Christmas Dads all together, working out on their fingers how much the hosts must have earned from the sale of 3,000 £40 tickets, and talking in bizarre adopted podcast cadences. It was extremely heartening to see. My dad is now a hardcore Tom Holland fan, and I get to strut about basking in the glory of giving him something that he actually likes. I’ve never saved a building from certain destruction by snipping a bomb’s wires in the correct order, but I imagine the feeling is exactly the same as choosing your dad a book he enjoyed reading.

It’s easy to get wrong, though. If I were to receive the recent autobiography by Tyson Fury’s dad, for example (When Fury Takes Over: My Bare-Knuckle Life As the Head of the Fury Family), I’d almost certainly start the new year feeling extremely confused about my place in the family. On the other hand, Simon Garfield has just written three miniature biographies of iconic typefaces, one of which promises a critical re-evaluation of Comic Sans. Whoever gets me those will understand me completely.

Seeing those new Garfield books on the shelves made me realise an obvious truth that I have been doing my best to ignore: I am Christmas Dad. I will almost certainly receive some of the books I’ve mentioned here for Christmas. And I think I’m OK with that. Unlike Waterstones Dad, Christmas Dads don’t have a single thing to be embarrassed about. To be a Christmas Dad is to have a family who love you, and have put more than the minimum acceptable level of effort into thinking about what you like.

Finally, for the sake of transparency, I have to admit to having some skin in the game. In April I’ve got a book coming out about what it’s like to go bald. Will anyone buy the book for themselves? Nobody knows. But will thousands of people buy it for their dads next Christmas, purely because their dads are bald and they don’t know what else to get them? God, I hope so. Whether I like it or not, my mortgage is counting on Christmas Dads.

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