My 77-year-old mother does not like stuff. She abhors clutter. She reuses everything. If you were to buy her a bottle of nice olive oil as a hostess gift, it would sit unopened in her pantry for the next twenty to forty years. When I ask what she wants for Hanukkah, the answer is always the same: nothing.
But last December, my mother came to me with a specific request: She wanted eight lists of cultural recommendations, one per night. It turned out to be the best present I’ve ever given her.
The eight categories I selected were books, movies, TV shows, podcasts, musical albums, recipes, websites and longform articles. I listed eight items per category, and I annotated them, explaining why I thought my mom might like each one.
This project required a deep dive into my own consumption habits — for example, I read plenty of longform articles, but I don’t have a system for tracking them. I vaguely recalled reading a piece about bagel vendors once taking on the mafia, but who wrote it, and for what publication? (The answer turned out to be Jason Turbow, for New York Magazine.)
More importantly, these eight nights of lists made me think carefully about my mother. What does she like? What media had she already consumed? How did she feel about it?
I didn’t want to recommend “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” to her because I knew she’d already watched it. What else was like that? Maybe “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” another witty comedy starring a Jewish female lead, which I had loved? Maybe “Only Murders in the Building,” which also has a great old-school Manhattan vibe? I had felt so-so about that show when I watched it, but I could imagine my mom liking it more. Maybe “Hacks,” which is also about female comedians? I hadn’t seen that one yet, but trusted sources (aka my friend Sarah who watches a lot of TV) had vouched for it. I ended up including all three of those on the TV list. “Only Murders” was the big winner for my mom. “Broad City,” on the other hand, did not make the cut — I’d absolutely adored it, but ultimately I decided not to include it on my mom’s TV list; I thought the humor might be “too millennial” for her.
I realized in doing this project that I could make eight lists for anyone in my life, and they would all be different. The point of gift-giving isn’t just to give your loved ones stuff that you like. If it were, Hanukkah would be easy — I’d just buy everyone eight nights of single-origin chocolates and be done with it. The point is to give people stuff you like that you have reason to believe they will also like. At their very best, gifts feel personal: I am the only person who would have gotten this for you, and you are the only person I would have gotten it for.
That’s a high standard to maintain for every gift. If you need to find something for all your colleagues or cousins, it’s reasonable to get them some nice soaps on the theory that most people, sooner or later, will wash their hands.
But for those few special people where you want to get them something truly personal, I maintain that curated lists are one of the best options. A personalized list of recommendations says: I pay attention to you. I notice what you do and don’t like. I respect your preferences. I have taken the time to look at this piece of media through your eyes. I am happy to work within the overlap between you and me, the segment of Venn diagram where our tastes align.
At a time when more and more people want intangible media or experiences, giving a list can be far better than giving a physical item. If you try this out for your own loved ones, feel free to use the eight categories that I gave to my mom, or create others more suited to the recipient: mobile games to play, cities to visit, local restaurants to eat at… the list for potential lists is endless.
My mother has spent the past twelve months happily working her way through her lists. She still has plenty of untouched items (figuring out how to listen to podcasts has proved elusive), but she always tells me when she engages with something I recommended. She wound up liking “The Good Place,” once she figured out how to watch the episodes in order rather than at random. (Don’t ask.) And she loved the Moosewood Baked Tofu recipe.
She has shared her eight lists with her friends, and she tells me that they now all think she’s an extremely cool, finger-on-the-pulse sort of person. “They’ve never even heard of Haim,” my mother tells me with deep satisfaction, referring to one of the recommendations on the music list.
As Hanukkah approaches once again, I asked my mom what she wants this year. “I don’t want anything,” she said, like always. “Just add to my lists.”