The best gift is paying a good book forward

The ultimate gift? A book recommendation from a friend

As a Los Angeles-based business reporter, I've always boarded eastbound flights with a shoulder bag of documents to review before landing. Preparing for intense interviews is akin to cramming for exams.

Return flights? Those are an entirely different matter. I want a novel or engrossing biography — and preferably one that a friend has pressed into my hand. Is there any better gift than a recommended book?

There's a shorthand — and trust — among friends or siblings who intuit what might register or resonate. If puzzled by a recommendation, I've often pressed ahead through a slow beginning out of faith or curiosity, usually to immeasurable reward.

I once asked my older brother Charlie — then on Wall Street — what I should read to understand the stock market. "James Clavell's 'King Rat,'" he said cryptically. So I began reading, baffled initially by the setting (a Japanese prison camp), before realizing that my brother's advice was brilliant. King Rat, the protagonist, wheels and deals in every imaginable commodity. Clavell's novel portrayed the raw psychology and manipulation of a marketplace more vividly — for me, a student of the humanities — than any textbook could.

Similarly, I trusted the instincts of Beverly Lewis, a college classmate who became a respected Bantam editor. If we met for dinner in New York, Bev would slip a book from her purse — perhaps in galley form — and say in her gentle Arkansas accent, "You might like this." Without Bev, I might never have read Twyla Tharp's memoir ("Push Comes to Shove: An Autobiography") or Nina Burleigh's probe of the murder of Mary Meyer, a JFK mistress previously married to CIA operative Cord Meyer ("A Very Private Woman").

Bev died in 1999, and I miss her terribly; I cherished her wisdom, wry humor and generous spirit. She lent me maternity clothes as well as books. But I was quite startled to discover that my grief colored my reading habits. For several years after her death, I found myself reading only authors that Bev had recommended.

Then came a business trip to New Orleans. When I arrived a day before my hotel could accommodate me, a friend of a friend offered a couch in her home. I learned that she often wrote book reviews for the Times-Picayune, and I told her of my reading paralysis. My kind hostess, Diana Pinckley, opened the door to a room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on all four walls. She walked me around the room, pausing to describe some of the authors and pulling copies to place in my arms. She sent me home with half a dozen books, fresh hope and deep gratitude.

I do read book reviews, just as I read reviews for film or theater or art exhibits. But let's face it: The opinion of a friend, tested and proven over time, carries great weight. And it's the sharing that enhances my joy of reading — even when it doesn't involve a friend or a book. Four years ago, I boarded a flight at New York's La Guardia Airport, knowing I'd seen my terminally ill brother for the last time. Summer storms delayed the flight; when I finally reached Chicago to change planes, I agreed to relinquish my carry-on bag to nab the last seat, without a moment to remove a book for the flight. I sat numbly in my grief, with nothing to comfort or distract me.

Then the Southwest flight attendant asked if there was anything I needed. "Two double-A batteries," I said bleakly. I'd found a battery-dead Sony Walkman in my purse, with one book-on-tape cassette inserted. Wordlessly, the flight attendant opened her own purse and removed batteries from an electronic device. I nearly wept with gratitude.

There is nothing quite like a good book recommended by a good friend. If you can't find the words to console or distract or amuse someone in need, or if you're looking for a holiday gift for a person who has everything, go to your own bookshelf or a bookstore (new or used). Select a favorite book for your friend. The newness of the binding doesn't matter; it's the act of sharing that binds.

Fresh batteries make a fine gift, too.

Kathryn Harris, a freelance writer and editor, is a two-time recipient of the Gerald Loeb award for distinguished business journalism and a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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