Mental Floss

23 Books to Give as Gifts This Holiday Season, as Chosen by the Mental Floss Staff

mentalfloss .com
Amazon / Amazon
This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Mental Floss staff is full of readers. We love to gush about our favorite titles, brag about the size of our TBR piles, and interview authors like Erik Larson about what we should read next (we even publish our own books, too!). So, if you're looking to buy something for a fellow bookworm this holiday season, we're here to help. Below, you'll find a list of gripping fiction, fascinating history titles, and a few eye-popping coffee table books, all of which were picked specifically by our own writers and editors.

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Vol. 1 // Jordie Bellaire (author), Dan Mora (illustrator); $12

BOOM! Studios/Amazon

Into every generation, a slayer is born. But this time around, fans of the cult-classic series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and even the 1992 film that inspired it) are in for a twist. Writer Jordie Bellaire and illustrator Dan Mora reimagine the story of Buffy Summers—a.k.a, the chosen one—for modern audiences. Set in 2019 instead of the late '90s, this collection stays true to the spirit of the show's first season, but makes some powerful changes that will make heading back to the Hellmouth worthwhile. Willow, for instance, is already out and proud, while Xander runs a blog and struggles openly with depression. Instead of The Master, the big bad of season one, Bellaire and Mora also opt to introduce Spike and Drusilla early on, with their roles slightly reversed in a way that Buffyverse lovers are sure to find interesting. —Shayna Murphy, Associate Editor

Buy it: Amazon

2. Nature’s Palette: A Color Reference System from the Natural World // Patrick Baty (Editor); $36

Princeton University Press/Amazon

A color reference guide might seem like an odd gift for anyone but an artist, but the sumptuous illustrations and intriguing scientific history in Nature's Palette will win over curious readers. The book is an update and expansion on a groundbreaking 1814 work—Werner's Nomenclature of Colours—which attempted to standardize descriptions of colors in nature, a century before the advent of color photography. Patrick Baty's new version includes facsimiles of the original guide as well as other artists' and naturalists' interpretations of it. The recipient of this book will never look at a Dutch Orange marigold or a mallard's Prussian Blue plumage the same way. —Kat Long, Science Editor

Buy it: Amazon

3. River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile // Candice Millard; $33


Having won acclaim for her book The River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt's expedition in the Amazon jungle, Candice Millard returns to the aqueous theme with a history of the race to find the origin of the Nile. The Royal Geographical Society sent dashing explorer Richard Burton and unstable army officer John Hanning Speke to locate the Nile's mythical headwaters in 1856, and their arduous journey devolved into a bitter, jealous feud. Millard also reveals the lesser-known role of Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a formerly enslaved guide on whom the explorers depended. —K.L.

Buy it: Amazon

4. The Whisper on the Night Wind: The True Story of a Wilderness Legend // Adam Shoalts; $27

Allen Lane/Amazon

Ghostly beings have haunted the uncharted forests of Labrador for more than a century, and Adam Shoalts, a well-known Canadian adventurer and author, tries to solve the mystery in The Whisper on the Night Wind. In the early 1900s, local villagers saw strange tracks in the snow and heard odd noises in the middle of the night. They even documented the occurrences in highly detailed accounts. But no one could identify the large beasts that tormented the community. Shoalts returns to the abandoned town to look for answers. —K.L.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995 // Anna von Planta (editor); $34


The journals of the author behind The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt (on which the film Carol is based), and other books are virtually guaranteed to spill tea. In life, Patricia Highsmith had a difficult relationship with her mother, various chronic ailments, tumultuous affairs with married women, and a deep misanthropic streak. She also chain-smoked, loved cats, and carried snails around in her purse. Highsmith's private thoughts on writing and life are revealed for the first time in this volume organized by her longtime editor. —K.L.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Anvils, Mallets, & Dynamite: The Unauthorized Biography of Looney Tunes // Jaime Weinman; $28

Sutherland House/Amazon

What’s up, Doc? Author Jaime Weinman charts the course of the legendary Warner Bros. Looney Tunes franchise from its humble beginnings in the 1930s to the fully-evolved characters that became cultural institutions. There are the expected origin stories throughout—Bugs Bunny started with the studio wanting a rabbit protagonist and worked backward from there—but the book also shows the impact these shorts had on the entire animation industry. While it’s far from an academic text, the dissection of why Tunes humor resonates is a cartoon education any fan will cherish. —Jake Rossen, Senior Staff Writer

Buy it: Amazon

7. Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood // Danny Trejo with Donal Logue; $16

Atria Books/Amazon

Danny Trejo has one of the most memorable faces in Hollywood, but his hardened stare is no act: Trejo spent his early life consumed by crime and drugs before finding success, first as a bit player before graduating to starring roles in films like Machete. You’ll get the Hollywood anecdotes you'd expect, but the real attraction is Trejo’s unflinching account of his darker side. —J.R.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Mental Floss: The Curious Viewer: A Miscellany of Bingeable Streaming TV Shows from the Past Twenty Years // Jennifer Wood and the Team at Mental Floss; $22

Weldon Owen/Amazon

Television’s golden age has given viewers plenty to talk about, from that infamous Sopranos ending to how Bryan Cranston somehow made a meth dealer sympathetic in Breaking Bad. For the scoop on these and dozens of other modern classics, check out Mental Floss’s binge-watching companion. You’ll get fascinating facts on your favorite series and plenty of motivation to watch something you might have missed. —J.R.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Yearbook // Seth Rogen; $14


Seth Rogen’s memoir-in-essay-form is the ideal pick for anyone who loves Seth Rogen, reminds you of Seth Rogen, or is just a nice and funny person who appreciates when nice and funny people tell nice and funny stories. The audiobook—truly one of the best I’ve ever heard—is read by Rogen with the help of dozens of friends and family members, from his own parents to fellow celebrities like Sacha Baron Cohen and Nick Kroll. —Ellen Gutoskey, Staff Writer

Buy it: Amazon

10. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets // Svetlana Alexievich; $14

Random House Trade Paperback/Amazon

Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, stitches together a riveting oral history of Russia in the aftermath of communism, from 1991 through 2012. Since it’s almost all interviews, Secondhand Time doesn’t feel like an academic endeavor; perfect for Cold War buffs and any curious person who’s ever wondered how Russia’s capitalist awakening affected regular people. —E.G.

Buy it: Amazon

11. Mental Floss: The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels & Novelists // Erin McCarthy and the Team at Mental Floss; $18

Weldon Owen/Amazon

For some bibliophiles, finding out how a book came to be—details about the author, the inspiration behind the story, which characters were based on real people, and so on—is just as fun as actually reading it. The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels & Novelists is tailor-made for them. Not only is it bursting with those types of tidbits, about everyone from Jane Austen to Jesmyn Ward, but its beautiful illustrations help make it the perfect coffee table conversation piece. —E.G.

Buy it: Amazon

12. A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World's Most Misunderstood Bird // Rosemary Mosco; $13

Workman Publishing Company/Amazon

This book is proof that you don't need to escape to the country to enjoy nature. In A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching, writer and artist (and Mental Floss contributor) Rosemary Mosco highlights a bird that many people encounter every day but few people stop to appreciate. Through her playful illustrations, she breaks down everything you'd ever want to know about the Columbidae family, from behavior to genetics. This is the perfect gift for the city-dwelling nature-lover in your life. —Michele Debczak, Senior Staff Writer

Buy it: Amazon

13. Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas // Laura Sook Duncombe; $12

Chicago Review Press/Amazon

They're often left out of history books, but women made up some of the fiercest figures from the Golden Age of Piracy. This book spotlights the female swashbucklers (both real and legendary) who terrorized the seven seas alongside their male counterparts. Get this for the history buff in your life—or anyone you know who went through a pirate phase. —M.D.

Buy it: Amazon

14. The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science // Sam Kean; $20

Little, Brown and Company/Amazon

Despite all the great things science has helped us achieve, the discipline isn't all butterflies and rainbows. In his latest book, Sam Kean grapples with science's dark side, exploring everything from how body snatching helped medical students learn anatomy to the dinosaur-loving rivals who desperately tried to ruin each others' careers to the shortcomings of forensic science, and so much more (and, frankly, so much worse). It's a compelling read that reminds us that not even scientists are perfect. —Erin McCarthy, Editor-in-Chief

Buy it: Amazon

15. Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law // Mary Roach; $19

W.W. Norton & Company/Amazon

Mary Roach has taken on everything from death and the afterlife to war and sex in her books. Her latest, Fuzz, examines the many ways in which nature and humans intersect, from bears that break and enter to many ways the military has tried—and failed—to keep birds at bay (with plenty of hilarious footnotes thrown in, too). It's a must-read for animal lovers, of course, but everyone would benefit from understanding what happens when nature gets a little too close ... and vice versa. —E.M.

Buy it: Amazon

16. Build Your House Around My Body // Violet Kupersmith; $19

Random House/Amazon

Violet Kupersmith's debut novel is a vividly written, intricately plotted ghost story (with a hefty dose of revenge thrown in for good measure) that weaves together a large group of characters over several decades of Vietnam's history. Readers who love to solve mysteries will appreciate Kupersmith's gift for placing subtle clues, but even if they think they've got this story figured out, the deeply moving ending will likely surprise them. —E.M.

Buy it: Amazon

17. Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad // Gordon H. Chang; $12


Impeccably researched and absolutely engrossing once it gets rolling, Gordon Chang’s deep dive into the Chinese workers who made the Transcontinental Railroad a reality is essential reading for anyone looking to better understand this oft-ignored part of American history. Chang—a history professor at Stanford University—paints a beautiful, yet somber, portrait of a small army of immigrants who toiled through unbelievably dangerous conditions for meager pay to complete a project that quite literally unified the country, only to have their work be virtually forgotten in the decades since. — Jay Serafino, Special Projects Editor

Buy it: Amazon

18. Far Sector // N. K. Jemisin (writer), Jamal Campbell (art); $27

DC Comics/Amazon

It takes a lot for a Green Lantern comic to stand out—but when you hire acclaimed sci-fi author N. K. Jemisin to bring her own personal touch to the mythos, you’re left with a story that’s definitely worth talking about. This book focuses on a brand-new Lantern named Sojourner “Jo” Mullein, who has to investigate a murder on an alien world that hasn’t witnessed a killing in hundreds of years. And while the thought of a world with virtually no violent crimes sounds like a paradise, there's something far more sinister at work here. Jemisin’s script is emotionally charged and socially aware as you’d expect, yet it's the lush, high-energy artwork from Jamal Campbell that might be the real standout. —J.S.

Buy it: Amazon

19. A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth // Kevin M. Kern, Tim O'Day, and Steven Vagnini; $60

Disney Editions/Amazon

Authors Kevin M. Kern, Tim O'Day, and Steven Vagnini celebrate the 50th anniversary of Disney World with a 320-page coffee-table book that chronicles the park's five-decade history through concept art and photographs that will trigger any fan's love for nostalgia. —Elaine Selna, Commerce Writer

Buy it: Amazon

20. Heroes' Feast: The Official D&D Cookbook // Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Michael Witwer; $21

Ten Speed Press/Amazon

There has been a recent trend in cookbooks based on pop culture properties, such as The Simpsons, Game of Thrones, and Star Trek. And if you're a Dungeons & Dragons devotee, Heroes' Feast features all sorts of recipes ideas based on the classic role-playing game like Orc Bacon and Elven Bread. It even has cocktail recipes—including one for an absinthe-based drink called Rollrum—that aren't for the faint of heart. —E.S.

Buy it: Amazon

21. Harlem Shuffle // Colson Whitehead; $18

Penguin Random House

Colson Whitehead’s follow-up to 2019’s The Nickel Boys, which earned him his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, takes place in a changing Harlem between 1959 and 1964. The novel centers around Ray Carney, a man who descends from a noted family of criminals but decides to live his life on the up-and-up and works as a furniture salesman. But the ties that bind can often strangle us, as Ray discovers when he agrees to fence some items for his cousin Freddie, a growing figure in the Harlem underworld. As Freddie’s stature grows, so do his heists, which only further embroils Ray in his cousin's schemes. Part family drama and part crime story, the book is divided into three parts, each one coinciding with three different heists—in the years 1959, 1961, and 1964—which all lead up to the Harlem race riot, a six-day period of rioting that began on July 18, 1964, after an off-duty white police officer shot and killed a Black teen. Though the events of the book take place more than a half-century ago, they feel just as timely today. —Jennifer M. Wood, Managing Editor

Buy it: Amazon

22. Hip-Hop (And Other Things) // Shea Serrano; $21


Revered writer and podcaster Shea Serrano has never made a secret of the fact that of the things he loves most in this world, rap is one of them. And this book—the third and final title in his (And Other Things) series—pays tribute to the art form by asking, and answering, some of the most pressing questions any fan of the musical genre has probably wondered at one time or another. Questions like: Where’s the second most impractical place Ludacris mentions having sex in during “What’s Your Fantasy?,” What joke was it DMX told that time?, Which was the most perfect duo in rap history?, and 2Pac or Biggie? Just as he did with Basketball (And Other Things) and Movies (And Other Things), each chapter (32 in all) is dedicated to answering a single question with a thoughtful essay about the topic that covers hip-hop and beyond, which easily turn Serrano’s obsessions into the reader’s. —JMW

Buy it: Amazon

23. Beastie Boys // Spike Jonze; $29


Long before Spike Jonze was earning Oscar nominations for his singular cinematic visions, he was working with some of the music world’s biggest names to create some of the most iconic music videos ever made, including Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” and “Undone — The Sweater Song” and a host of projects for the Beastie Boys, including “Sabotage.” Jonze, who first met the Boys in 1991, always had his trusty camera with him and documented their time together. In 2020, Jonze released this photography book—his first ever—to coincide with the premiere of Beastie Boys Story, his documentary about the groundbreaking band behind such critically acclaimed albums as Licensed to Ill, Paul’s Boutique, Hello Nasty, and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, and how they evolved both as people and artists. This book puts you right there with them as Jonze shares these personal photos, many of them for the first time. —JMW

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!