Christmas shopping was so much easier when stuff existed.
If you cast your mind back into the distant past, you may remember a simpler time before we lived our lives online. A time when, if you knew your mom loved Linda Ronstadt, you could purchase a recording of Linda Ronstadt, wrap it up, and place it under the tree. On Christmas morning, your mom would delightedly open the package and have something new.
It was hers, this Linda Ronstadt album. It didn’t exist as some sort of intangible entity on some distant corporate server. It was just there, in her house. Your mom had that Linda Ronstadt album, and no one could claim otherwise.
Or let’s say you were 16 and you saw Garden State with your girlfriend, Amanda, and you were both convinced it had changed your lives. Zach Braff, you realized, just understood your generation. When Christmas came around, if you were still under this mistaken impression, you could be very romantic and obtain this film for Amanda. She would treasure it. When she brought her impressive film collection to college, every time she took it out, she would think of you and those heady days of ninth grade, hanging out in Xavier’s basement. (It’s cool you had a friend named Xavier. Not a lot of people do.)
It was a time when the various media everyone accrued was a fundamental part of who they were. Helping to expand others’ collections was a way of helping them build that identity. You were saying: hey, I know what you care about and by God, I’m going to find it for you. And it won’t even be that hard.
I don’t want to brag, but I used to be a great gift giver. You mentioned Smokey Robinson on our first date? Bam, you’re getting the Tamla Motown Gold Collection. You like Sleater-Kinney? Prepare for some B-sides in your stocking. You think you’re some kind of “film buff?” I’ll find you some weird black and white thing you can claim to be really into.
But every year, as more and more stuff evaporates from the physical world to take up residence on a subscription service, the holidays get a little harder. It’s not like you can just buy someone a Netflix account — that’s a monthly financial commitment, and anyway I think there’s only about three accounts in existence, shared by 78% of the global population.
I realize having unlimited access to every form of media ever created has its perks. I just get a bit nostalgic around this time of year.
Fortunately, one ancient technology seems, against the odds, to be surviving. Yes, Borders is gone, Barnes and Noble is in trouble, and e-readers are omnipresent. But small bookshops have actually seen growth, and ebooks just can’t seem to kill off their paper predecessors. Even Amazon, the maker of the Kindle, is going out of its way to promote real books with its own physical shops.
A great New Yorker cover a few years ago shows an alien sitting among the post-apocalyptic wreckage of a future Earth. Nothing works any more, but the alien has still found a way to entertain itself: it’s reading a book.
I bet that alien would be really easy to shop for.
If there’s anyone left to shop for him.
I can’t get quite so exercised about matters. If one sort of gift has been reduced in stature, others are doing just fine, thank you very much.