A book, as we all know, is the gift that keeps on giving, and I certainly hope that Santa fulfilled your festive reading wants at the weekend.
But can there be any gift more bursting with potential energy than the magic that is the book token?
Book tokens are like money, but better – you can't be distracted by spontaneous non-book purchases that you'll only regret later, and you can't turn their spending power to more mundane tasks such as buying food or paying for utilities. Book tokens are for books alone, and thus their value is magnified considerably.
I haven't had a book token for years. In these days of Amazon wishlists and time-poor friends who just ask you what you want because they haven't the leisure or inclination to scour your bookshelves and seek out that missing Gustav Meyrink volume for your collection, few people take a chance on just buying a book for someone. Buying a book "cold" is like buying underwear as a present – you either completely ace it or get it spectacularly, shame-inducingly wrong.
I was both shocked and thrilled, looking at the National Book Tokens website, to see that you can buy tokens up to the value of £250. Imagine that: half a monkey to spend on books! For those of us still recession-strapped, however, the more reasonable (and most popular) level is the starting price of a tenner.
Book tokens still come in lovely paper versions, of course, but these days you can also get pre-loaded credit card-style gift tokens – a far cry from when book tokens first became common gift currency, in 1932, when they were sold as Green Shield-style stamps that were licked and slapped on to a gift card.
There are some fascinating illustrations on the National Book Tokens site of the gift cards and how they've changed over the decades. When they were launched in the 1930s the country was mired in a depression, and the tokens spoke of escapism – an itinerant reader, lost in a book, traipses along a country path, with the message: "Inside there's a book for you!" By the end of the 20th century, the emphasis was more on children, with cartoon pictures of mice and bears buried in books.
Book tokens seem resolutely to have remained as traditional as possible over their lifetime. It wasn't until the 1990s when tokens became the paper vouchers that we know and love, and only in 2006 did National Book Tokens get their own website. This year (2010) was the year the plastic version launched. I like that. It speaks of something bold and sure, a confidence in the power of the book to transcend all. And perhaps that attitude works – £23m worth of book tokens are sold every year and they are accepted in 3,000 shops.
There's been a viral video been doing the rounds for a few weeks, of a small boy throwing a tantrum because he got books for a Christmas present. "What the heck?" he demands. "Books aren't toys!"
No. They're not. I well remember clutching my Christmas book tokens (in £1 denominations!) in my sweaty paws, always waiting until January to spend them because there were sales on and I could get piles of reduced books from the local independent bookshop. The books lasted longer than the toys ever did, and some of them I still have. And they really do keep on giving.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010