The best stocking-filler books of 2014

Grumpy Cat

Festive suggestions include Grumpy Cat, cheese jokes and ‘a philosophy of beards’

Tis the season to buy and exchange not only books but also the kind of book-related tat and ephemera – including Penguin mugs, bookshop T-shirts, tote bags, typewriter-key jewellery, Jane Austen notelets and novelty socks – that at any other time of the year you wouldn’t consider giving house room to.

Pre-eminent this year among the items that you will soon to be regifting or taking to the Save the Children shop is The Grumpy Guide to Life: Observations from Grumpy Cat (Chronicle). Grumpy Cat is – of course – an internet sensation. And she is, just in case you haven’t been paying enough attention to Reddit, Facebook and all of the other contemporary heralds and signs of wonder – a grumpy-looking cat. There’s a movie, apparently – beware! – and a lot of merchandise. The book consists of Grumpy Cat looking grumpy, with captions offering hilarious demotivational advice. “Strangers Are Just Enemies You Haven’t Met Yet”, “The Longest Journeys Start with a Single Step. Best Not to Take Any” etc. I was about to throw the book in the bin, despairing entirely of the state of modern civilisation, when my children pointed out that I look and sound exactly like Grumpy Cat. So at least I know what I’m getting for Christmas.

For anyone who attempts to offload Grumpy Cat on you, it would be easy to retaliate with something like Rick Chillot’s How to Make Your Baby an Internet Celebrity (Quirk), or perhaps Andy Donaldson’s Terrible Estate Agent Photos (Square Peg). Don’t – although the latter does have the obvious advantage of being actually funny and wins hands‑down the toilet book captions-of-the-year competition.

To really outdo the Grumpy Cat gifter in your life you need to respond with a truly heavyweight stocking filler such as The Magi: Legend, Art and Cult (Hirmer), edited by Moritz Woelk, or perhaps Green: The History of a Colour (Princeton) by Michel Pastoureau. As the recipient of your gift staggers under the weight of your good taste you could always add Say Cheese! The Original Collection of Cheese Jokes (Head of Zeus), just to show that, as a reader of the Guardian, you too have a zany sense of humour. The book contains enough obscure cogulated milk jests to satisfy even the most exacting fromager. “What does a cheese ask for when he’s on a pub crawl?” “Morbier!”

2014 will of course be remembered as the year that saw the Russian intervention in Ukraine, the rise of Islamic State in Iraq, terrible events in Syria and Ebola in west Africa. It will also doubtless be remembered as the year in which we reached peak beard. It is therefore perhaps a little too late for the British Library to be offering a reprint of Thomas S Gowing’s The Philosophy of Beards, first published in 1854, but the book might serve as a nice memento for some recently clean-shaven hipster.

As they rediscover their newly hair‑less chin the hipster in your life might enjoy a couple of literary chin‑strokers, such as The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, edited by CD Rose (Melville House), and Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library, first published in Japan in 2008 and now translated into English for the first time (Harvill Secker). It’s difficult to make head or tail of either of these books, which are therefore guaranteed to last until Boxing Day and beyond. Even more delightfully perplexing is Hans Eijkelboom’s People of the Twenty-First Century (Phaidon), which features page after page of themed photographs – a page of men in Cairo wearing stripey jumpers, for example, women in Nairobi wearing floral prints, and men in New York wearing T-shirts. A kind of Where’s Wally? for adults, minus Wally.

Speaking of which, anytime is of course a good time to read a Terry Pratchett, but it’s perhaps only at Christmas that one might one indulge in a collection of essays such as Jacob M Held and James South’s Philosophy and Terry Pratchett (Palgrave). Who could resist a book that includes an essay on “Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy on the Discworld”? Other inexplicably irresistible and uncategorisable Christmas fare includes Reggie Chamberlain-King’s Weird Belfast (Blackstaff), a compendium of weird facts about a city that might rightly claim to be weirder than any other, and Mel Gooding’s Art Rules! (and How to Break Them) (Redstone). Don’t buy these books as gifts: keep them for yourself. Ditto the gorgeous book bags, hoodies, badges and goodness knows what else available from all of the remaining independent bookshops up and down the country, such as NoAlibis (, the Book Hive ( and Much Ado Books (

Finally, as one considers yet another pointless and wasted year, it might be time to consider giving it all up and joining the new age travellers who are beautifully portrayed in Iain McKell’s The New Gypsies (Prestel). If Jesus really was born in a stable, he’d have been right at home among the wild-eyed and the dentally challenged people photographed by McKell. He would also doubtless have identified with the many neglected, overlooked and forgotten people in Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe’s The Who, the What and The When (Chronicle), which is an account of the lives of the friends, mentors, mothers, brothers, aunts, sidekicks and also-rans of history. Spare a thought for Jack Sendak, brother of the more famous Maurice, for Tom Thumb’s wife and for the Carter Family’s guitar teacher. We can’t all be Andy Warhol, but we may yet be a Julia Warhola. Personally, I’d rather be Emily Dickinson’s dog than Grumpy Cat.

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Powered by article was written by Ian Sansom, for The Guardian on Thursday 4th December 2014 07.30 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010