Show People You Care by Buying Stuff

Gifts for the discerning academic.


December 18, 2014

Well, Price Waterhouse wants you to. In any case, here are some last-minute holiday gift ideas for higher-ed workers.


  • This first idea is actually out of stock because Al Roker pushed it on the Today Show, but you’ll need it most when the new semester starts anyway. Whether you work up north in the confluence of polar vortex and state budget cuts, or down south, like me, where the air-conditioning is turned up so high to scrub humidity from the air that you have to wear a winter coat and hat to class, you might like this shawl/blanket that plugs into a USB port on your laptop and puts out the heat of two lap cats.
  • In the meantime it’s the Slanket, which sounds really bad but probably feels good.

For the fluorescent-tube office

  • These posters contain, apparently, all the words to the works they portray; the t-shirts have around 40,000 words; tote bags 20,000. Be forewarned the words don’t print well around the armpits, the company says, but what do you want to be reading in an armpit for?
  • Library of Congress photos are really, really cool and can be ordered, then matted and framed. Search by subject, photographer, and more.
  • The amazing things about the handmade dolls this artist sells on Etsy are a) the crazy variety of people represented, from Tippi Hedren to Ann B. Davis to Marcel Proust, and b) that they’re entirely recognizable.
  • So K-cups turn out to be evil too—no great surprise, really, since I live here next to the petrochemical plants and every time you make yourself an office espresso I hear the roar of furnaces. Try the Vietnamese coffee filter I’ve loved ever since I traveled to Vietnam in ’95. Combine two of these with a plug-in water kettle from Target and a couple of good mugs, and you’ve got a great set nobody else will think to give. I like my Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk
  • Illumination. Which can be hard to come by in a college office.
  • Plants.
  • Most people keep photos on their phones and devices now, but it might be nice to display them in the office. Here’s one way to do it. They change and the frame can be synched to the other devices.

Bookish things

  • I’ll be honest: Other than suggesting people buy directly from independent and university presses, I don’t know what to say anymore about good guys or evil doers in print bookselling. Sometimes I start feeling like environmentalist Ed Abbey, who near the end drove an enormous finned Cadillac convertible and threw empty beer cans in the road to make the point that...well, I don’t know the point. Buy Cactus Ed’s books and many others for a song at half.com.
  • Listen, that math textbook you published ain’t gonna read itself. Make an audio book out of it and freshmen can listen to their homework on the way to the Riff Raff concert. Novels, collections, and memoirs might work too.
  • Subscription to the New Yorker, New York Times, LA Review of Books, Paris Review, VQR, Tin House, Ninth Letter, or any of the excellent mid-sized or small journals listed at New Pages. As an editor of one of these journals, I can tell you your patronage is deeply appreciated.
  • An independent press book series subscription can provide excellent value and high entertainment, much like a jelly-of-the month club. Dzanc offers one; Dalkey Archive had a special offer last year; or check out this short list of publishers who have series deals, at the Memorious blog.
  • Audible membership lets you download your choice of audiobooks from 150,000 titles. Three months is $45.
  • Just because I filled a couple of shoeboxes with refills covered in Seven-like crazy-scrawl, my wife called them the Insanity Notebooks. I’m on my second notebook from Levenger in eight years or so. They’re durable, invaluable, and I never go anywhere without mine in my jeans pocket.
  • You can do the portable notepad-journal other ways, of course. Here’s a much better range of outer-cover options, meant to wrap around Moleskin innards, which some people have developed a fetish for anyway.
  • Other pretty little cheap notebooks with animals on them and I want them.
  • Rare, first edition, signed, or antiquarian books.


  • A spa treatment somewhere near you. 
  • A night at a five-star-hotel, using an aggregator to get an affordable deal. Might be good for New Year’s Eve, or the day when students move back into the dorms for the year.


  • Become a member of a museum (even a kids’ museum) near you. The American Alliance of Museums has a searchable database by region, type of museum, and other criteria. Or become a member of a national museum group like the Smithsonian. The Russians could use a little help, and I was just at the Hermitage in August.
  • Remember that VHS tape with the short movie you made with your first wife and all your mutual friends, back when camcorders were radical? The audio tape of you and your army buddies, wasted on pina coladas, singing eight-part harmony in the communal latrine, where the acoustics were amazing? That media is degrading by the minute in boxes in your basement. Save them for posterity—or at least convert them to current technology formats. You won’t have to do it again for at least, oh, five years.

Suck it, Scrooge

  • “Bright amber colour; appealing aromas and flavours of green apple, vanilla, caramel and ginger; medium-intensity with weighty alcohol, the finish is fruity and medium in length. Score - 93.” Sounds like writers’ tears to me.
  • Nostalgia. Candy. Nostalgic candy.


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