Profhacker 2010 Holiday Gift Guide

Holiday LightsIt’s hard to believe a year has already passed since the first ProfHacker Holiday Gift Guide, but here we are! We’ve put together a rather lengthy set of suggestions for your consideration.

Is there a coffee lover on your list? We’ve got you covered. Someone who likes to read? There’s bound to be something for them below. A fan of gadgets? Check. What about Legos? …okay, you’ll want to jump straight to Jason’s contribution for that.


Academics tend to spend their days reading, writing, and marking papers. Since a lot of them tend to do this at odd hours (or, toward the end of the semester, on far too little sleep), they tend to need a lot of coffee. With that in mind, I have three suggestions the academic in your life may very much appreciate.

For staying awake (or just keeping happily warm during the cold winter months): A four or five-cup coffeemaker for the office. It will fit easily into a corner, keeping hot, fresh coffee ready to hand. Frankly, at $1 or more per cup at most campus cafés, a cheap (you can easily find models for under $20) coffeemaker saves a lot of money over time.

For drafting longhand, taking notes, and marking papers: A multipack of inexpensive but decent pens, in multiple colors. Yes, I know, this one may sound so trivial as to be dull and boring. I can attest, though, that there are few things more irritating than being in the middle of work that requires pen and paper, having your ink run out, and discovering that you have no spare pens on hand.

For electronic reading without eyestrain: An ebook reader that uses e-ink. This one’s on the pricier side, though a price war between Amazon and Barnes and Noble last summer has brought prices down considerably. A lot of academics, both for environmental and practical reasons (paper is heavy!) prefer to read onscreen. The problem for many is that reading from a computer screen all day can cause bothersome eyestrain. An ebook reader that uses e-ink gets around that problem. There are a number of options out there–the Kindle and the NOOK are the most well known, but there are also the Sony Reader and the Kobo Reader–each with its own benefits and drawbacks. The NOOKColor and the iPad (not really an ereader per se, though it has that capability) are probably best avoided, as they have LCD screens. (They’re fine enough devices, but they won’t help with the eyestrain issue.)

(See Amy’s gift ideas from 2009.)


Last year, I wrote about how a Sirius radio subscription would be a good present (to give or to get). I stand by that assertion. A satellite radio subscription is similar to having a Netflix subscription. These subscriptions are worth the money if for nothing other than not having to watch television commercials or listen to mindless DJ radio chatter. Sirius often has promotional sales on services and equipment, and they do offer a 30-day free trial subscription.

A few years ago, a friend introduced me to Envirosax, a company that makes reusable shopping bags, and these are what I’m giving as gifts to some people this year. These bags are as wonderful as they are eco-friendly. You can purchase individual bags, but the best deal is to buy them in sets, or in pouches. A single pouch set contains five bags of various colors and designs. Each bag can hold up to 44 pounds of shopping items, yet they can fold into a small pouch that you can keep in a purse or backpack. (I keep them in the glove compartment of my car so I can use them each time I go shopping.) These bags are not cheap (they list for about $40 a set), but they last a very long time, and they do take the place of plastic shopping bags.

Lastly, George recently recommended a book that I loved, and I’m recommending it to anyone who will listen: Patti Smith’s Just Kids. I had been a Patti Smith fan for years, but I really didn’t know much about her personal life– I liked the music and I liked the Gilda Radner impersonation from Saturday Night Live. The book, however, gives an insight into the relationship between Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe–when they were “just kids” trying to make it in New York City in the late 1960s–that many would not expect. Her prose is beautiful, poetic, and hopeful. Just Kids recently won the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction. The book is available in hard and softcover editions, plus the publishers have recently released a Kindle edition.

(See Billie’s gift ideas from 2009.)


Last year I requested the Surge backpack from The North Face. My in-laws were kind enough to read ProfHacker and respond to my wishes. This year, I can say that it’s a fabulous bag. It’s got all the pockets for the gear that I needed to carry with me when I was still commuting and the compression straps means that it’s good to go now that I’m closer to home. After a lot of heavy use it still looks brand new. Best of all, it’s a whole lot easier on my back to have the weight distributed rather than with the shoulder bag I’d been using for the previous eight years. If you’re buying for a ProfHacker, there’s a good chance that he has a thing for bags. (Goodness knows we do around here.) I won’t say that the Surge is the perfect bag for everyone. Instead take this as an invitation to find the ProfHacker on your list–even if it takes a quest–with the bag that will help her get her work done.

An advantage of both my new job and my not having quite as long a commute these days is that I’ve got a lot more time to read than I have had in a very long time. As much as I like to support local businesses, it’s hard for them to beat the prices of online booksellers like Amazon. But the cost of shipping can often be a downer when purchasing things online. That’s my second suggestion for a gift for a ProfHacker is a subscription to Amazon Prime. For $79.99/year, you can give the gift of all-you-can-eat, free, two-day shipping from Amazon. While it’s a bit pricy up front, the savings on shipping, on the items you’re purchasing, and on time has more than made up the cost over the five years that I’ve been using Prime. You can even share membership benefits with up to four other household members so children, partners, and pets can all benefit from the one gift. And with Amazon Prime they’ll save not only on shipping for books but also music, space heaters, groceries, and more. It’s a gift that keeps on giving throughout the year. (Note that if your giftee is a student, she is eligible for a free Amazon Prime account. While it’s gift enough to let her know about the program, it does not necessarily exempt you from other purchases.)

Finally, my favorite acquisition of the year has got to be my iPad. It’s a sight more expensive than an Amazon Prime membership (and both are more than I’m allowed to spend on my wife this year). But I’ve grown to depend on it for its portability and its effect on my productivity. Amy is right that it’s an LCD screen rather than e-ink and that it’s not the same as reading a book. And some might find the glare off the glossy screen annoying. I’m one of those, but my screen protector (the anti-glare film from Power Support, $24.95 + shipping) from has helped tremendously. (It’s totally worth your money and time to invest in a good screen protector rather than a $3 one.) Despite those caveats, I’ll say that reading on the iPad is far better than I ever thought it would be. These days, my iPod Touch is more or less for music only.

(See Brian’s gift ideas from 2009.)


Like many academics, every time I travel, I end up having to untangle a mess of cords from my carry-on: my phone-charger, my computer power cord, headphones . . . This Cocoon GRID-IT Organizer seems like the answer to many a prayer. It’s adaptable and will make keeping track of both gadgets and their cords much easier. It is available in a few different sizes and in your choice of black or grey. Or, if instead of stowing your gadgets in your carry-on, you might opt for one of these traveler’s jackets by ScottEVest. I really like the fleece model, which not only has removable sleeves, but it also has 24 pockets! That’s room enough for an iPod, a BlackBerry, a Kindle, a digital camera, sunglasses, your passport, *and* a bottle of water, should you desire to carry all of those things on your person. And lastly, it’s hard to go wrong with a good book. Some of my favorites over the last year have included Tana French’s Faithful Place, Michael Connelly’s The Reversal, and Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture.



In last year’s edition of the holiday gift guide, I was decidedly "academic" in my recommendations (academic in the sense that everything I recommended was intended to be employed in the context of my teaching, research, or scholarly activity). This year, I’m going to nerd it up something fierce, suggesting some items that speak to my game-playing, comic reading, sci-fi loving inner nerd (though, on reflection, I’m hardly alone in this regard among my fellow ProfHackers).

The first on my list is Essex County, a graphic novel trilogy by Jeff Lemire. Written and illustrated by Lemire (and published by Top Shelf Productions), Essex County (all three volumes are collected in The Complete Essex County) tells an incredibly powerful story about one community (an imaginary version of the Ontario county in with Lemire himself grew up) throughout the years. The stories are deeply moving, exploring themes of family bonds, memory, grief, secrets, reconciliation, and redemption. It is nothing short of a masterpiece, both within its medium and beyond. Recently, Lemire has been getting a lot of mainstream comics recognition for Sweet Tooth, his ongoing series published by Vertigo, as well as his work on Superboy and The Atom (from DC Comics). Few would argue, however, that Essex County is easily his finest work as well as one of the most remarkable achievements in recent indie comics. My recommendation is especially timely as Essex County has recently been chosen as a finalist in the CBC’s 2011 Canada Reads. This is a stunning accomplishment as Canada Reads recognizes the best in Canadian literature. It is also extremely important to note that Essex County is the first graphic novel ever included in Canada Reads. So, for all of these reasons (and many more), I cannot recommend Essex County strongly enough.

Also on my list – Doctor Who! Those who know me know that I’m a fierce Doctor Who fan from way back. I started watching re-runs of the original the show way back in the ’80s. I was also fully onboard when the series came back in 2005 (with Christopher Eccleston taking up the mantle of the titular character). Doctor Who is a wonderful example of episodic british sci-fi storytelling that has no problem whatsoever spinning tales that can be downright silly, astonishingly sophisticated, amazingly touching, and remarkably chilling. (Just watch Blink, and you will know exactly what I mean). So, if you’ve got a sci-fi geek on your Christmas list (or you’ve been hearing about Doctor Who and were wondering what all the fuss is about), I would strongly suggest picking up any of the 5 complete seasons (or series, as they are called in Britain). Which is a good place to start? Personally, I would go with either The First Series, The Second Series, or the most recent Fifth Series.

(See Ethan’s gift ideas from 2009.)


My list is pretty book-oriented this year, perhaps because I’ve been spending a lot of time in the awesome indie bookshop that opened last summer on our town square. (And it’s entirely possible that the smell of freshly-baked cupcakes has been luring me to that general part of town… but you didn’t hear it from me.)

For digital editions of books, the Kindle remains the best choice, in my opinion. Go ahead and choose the Kindle 3G over the model that only features Wi-Fi. For a signficantly larger screen–and a good bit more money–you should consider the Kindle DX.

In 2010, South Carolina native Terrance Hayes published a collection of poems entitled Lighthead, which is this year’s winner of the National Book Award for poetry. Interestingly, Hayes models some of his work on the “pecha kucha” presentation format, using 20 stanzas–instead of slides–to create a poem.

Our 2010 first-year book on my campus was Rebecca Skloot’s powerful Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Billie already mentioned Patti Smith’s excellent memoir, Just Kids. If books by musicians are what you’re after, check out the following:

Of course, devices like the Kindle cannot replicate the appeal of a well-made book or of artfully crafted graphic narratives. For the reader on your list who loves such bibliographic qualities, consider these publications:

To stay alert while getting all of this reading done, I recommend the Senseo coffee machine or the simpler (and more affordable) Hamilton Beach single serving brewer. (Don’t forget to buy the right coffee for these devices!) Their convenience and simplicity make these a perfect choice for the office.

(See George’s gift ideas from 2009.)


A confession: I’m a PC user, but I harbor a tremendous amount of Mac envy. So I wouldn’t complain if anyone wanted to gift to me a MacBook Air or an iPad. It’s likely that anyone on your gift list wouldn’t protest either if they were the recipient of one of these. If your intended gift recipient already has a nice new shiny tech toy, I’m sure a nice bag for carrying around the the item would be appreciated, such as one of the many choices from Tom Bihn or Crystalyn Kae.

I agree with my fellow ProfHackers that items that make work more comfortable and enjoyable will be greatly appreciated by any academic. If you know a coffee or tea drinker, consider a collection of gifts so that they can make their favorite drink in their office. A three-cup French press can be used for either coffee or tea, and packaged up with an electric kettle lets your gift recipient be able to make just about any hot drink while they are working. If you have a favorite roast of coffee or type of loose tea I’m sure it would be much appreciated if you included a sample with your gift. Dry winter air can be tough on hands, so a good hand lotion would likely be appreciated by many people. I like Kiehl’s Ultimate Strength Hand Salve. And having just personally purchased one of these for a gift and wishing I’d gotten one for myself, the Kensington Wireless Presenter with laser pointer and 1-GB built-in memory is very handy for anyone who gives presentations. Mine came with a $20 rebate, so you might want to keep your eye out for that.

Holiday music can get old fast (that’s just my opinion. But how many different renditions of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” does the world really need?) But Light & Gold, a collection of choral music by contemporary composer Eric Whitacre, is a nice album for the season. The works aren’t explicitly about any one holiday, the composition techniques have interesting chord choices, and the music can fade into the background if need be. I’ve been known to be brought to tears by live performances of these pieces – they’re that beautiful. If you do want to give the gift of holiday music, a fine collection of not-your-usual pieces as performed by Chanticleer in A Chanticleer Christmas is a nice choice. Bonus: you can give these albums as a digital gift through Amazon. Finally, I think just about anyone would enjoy reading the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, which has just been published for the first time. It could be an especially nice gift for someone with an e-reader, such as a Kindle.



Can’t believe I’m the only one in the group recommending The Jedi Path: Vault Edition. It hits the sweet spot between “cool enough for casual fans” and “Star Wars-nerd appropriate,” and, what’s more, Amazon’s got it for almost half-price. (See my interview with the author, or my son’s video introduction to it.) Bonus Star Wars ideas: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, the LEGO Star Wars minifig alarm clock, or, for the foodie in your life, the R2-D2 peppermill. (Also for kids: I LEGO NY, Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti . . . or just the big single off it, Jonathan Coulton’s The Princess Who Saved Herself.”)

Three books: two for the nostalgic middle-aged (probably male) geek: LEGO: A Love Story, and Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate. The other is the newest in a series that, while pitched at the YA market, is great fun for all: Behemoth, from the Leviathan series, set in an alternate history where World War I is fought between Darwinists, who custom-design whole ecologies of machine-like animals via genetic splicing, and Clankers, who are more mechanical in emphasis. (My 7-yr-old loved this the 2nd-most of any published this year. First favorite: Daniel Loxton’s Evolution: How We and All Living Things, Even the Arsenic-Based Ones, Came To Be. I may be misremembering the title of that a bit.)

iTunes asserts that I listened to these three albums the most of any released this year: The Hold Steady’s Heaven Is Whenever, Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor, and The Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang. They’d make great gifts!

(See Jason’s gift ideas from 2009.)


In last year’s guide, I gushed about my iPod touch. I continue to recommend it as a great entry into Apple’s iOS world of apps for those who don’t want the data plan that the iPhone comes with. Check out our various recommendations for iPad/iPod Touch/iPhone apps for productivity. But, hey, did you know people also play games on these devices? It turns out they (and by “they” I mean millions and millions of people) do. My two recommendations for incredibly addictive fun games for all ages are the wildly popular games Angry Birds and Cut the Rope. [People without iOS devices shouldn't feel left out. Angry Birds is available for other platforms and word is that Cut the Rope is being developed for Android as well.]

A nice complement to Amy’s coffeemaker would be to pick up a couple Contigo mugs. These self-sealing insulated mugs keep hot drinks hot for hours and they fit into all car cup holders; more importantly, when you’re not drinking out of them, they are impossible to spill. You can turn them upside down, shake them, knock them off a car roof (not that I’ve done that….), and they won’t spill. They are the equivalent of adult “sippy cups” and I can’t recommend them enough.

I saw the Rock Bottom Remainders in concert in April and while I wouldn’t recommend their album (thankfully they don’t have one), I did realize that some of these very famous authors turned pseudo-musicians actually could play. One of the best was guitarist and novelist Greg Iles. I hadn’t heard of him before, but since then, in the time I set aside for pleasure reading, I’ve devoured his books in quick succession.

Finally, following up on the recommendation from Nels last year about Moleskine notebooks, I picked up one myself which I’ve found to be a nice size to carry to meetings and lectures.

(See Jeff’s gift ideas from 2009.)


True confessions time: I am lousy at gift buying. Really, really lousy. I never have any ideas for presents that I’m genuinely happy with, and so I tend to fall back on books and DVD box sets of my favorite television series. That’s all well and good, but it’s not exactly what most of the people I know would like.

A couple of years ago, however, I finally realized that the gift card is actually the thing that makes most of the people I give gifts to the happiest. I still feel mildly guilty about it — there is that whole “it’s the thought that counts” thing, and gift cards don’t require all that much thought. But my thought is that I want the people I care about to pick out something they’d like, rather than giving them something I think they’d like.

So: Gift Cards. iTunes store gift cards for most of my nieces and nephews (I was seriously popular the first year I did that). Amazon gift cards for the serious readers, and gift cards from their favorite clothing/cooking/whathaveyou stores for everyone else. I can live with the guilt, given how happy everyone seems when they get them.



This was the year I cut the cable and took down the satellite dish. And now the only media service I pay for is Netflix, whose instant streaming feature on the Wii covers most of my television and movie needs. If your friends or family are similarly looking to move away from costly monthly services, then I recommend Netflix’s $7.99/monthly streaming-only subscription as a gift. If you still want DVR-ish capabilities, then I recommend the ASUS EEE Box, a tiny PC that hooks directly to your television through an HDMI connection. Using Hulu or Boxee, you can turn the ASUS into a full-fledged media center for your television. Combine the ASUS with a USB HDTV tuner, and you can record the broadcast networks in high definition—for free.

If you’re looking for quirky, compelling reading as a gift, I recommend Blacksad, a noir-ish graphic novel by the Spanish team of Juan Díaz and Juanjo Guarnido. This volume originally appeared in France and Spain and only this year has it been re-released in English. It’s a visual and narrative pleasure, and it will genuinely surprise whomever you give it to. While I’m thinking about graphic novels, I must recommend the Library of America’s recent edition of Lynd Ward’s groundbreaking woodcut novels from the twenties and thirties. Wordless and artistically stunning, this collection of six novels belongs on the shelf of anyone who enjoys graphic narrative. On a less literary note, treat your friend or family’s inner-teenager to Absolutely Mad—a complete Mad Magazine archive on DVD-ROM, containing the full contents of every issue, from the very first issue in 1952 to the issues of the mid-2000s.



In last year’s ProfHacker gift guide I suggested a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner that I’d been coveting for a while. So I bought the S1500 Deluxe Bundle earlier this year and I love it. Anyone who needs a fast sheetfed scanner or dreams of a paperless office would enjoy receiving this as a gift. It is super easy to set up, takes up very little space, and, in the bundle pack, comes with some great software: Abbyy OCR, Adobe Acrobat 9, and ScanSnap’s own organizing software. (At Amazon, the price difference between the bundle and the S1500 for PC is only about $20, which is less than you’d pay for Acrobat or Abbyy on its own.) Once it’s set up, you simply unfold the front panel when you’re ready to scan, and it’s fast and nearly silent. It makes impromptu scanning of just a couple pages simple in a way that none of my previous scanners did. There is also a Macintosh version of the S1500 available.

The Shakti mat, a cloth mat covered with sharp plastic spikes, looks intimidating (and it does sting a bit the first few times you use it) but is a wonderful tool for relaxation and well-being. The pressure of the spikes (if it’s too much at first, just place a dishtowel over them) helps release tension in the fascia, activates the body’s meridian systems, and releases endorphins. It’s excellent for spot application to tight areas or injuries as well as for general relaxation.

I have experimented with several different CDs that employ binaural technology to encourage specific brainwave patterns. The one I like best is Jeffrey Thompson’sMusic for Brainwave Massage — I often play it in the background while I’m working. If I’m feeling scattered, tired, or bored, this CD helps me get focused.

If I were going to be stuck on a desert island or over a winter holiday with just one book, it’d be George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It’s simply the best (Victorian) novel ever. But if you insist on giving more recent novels, some I’ve enjoyed over the past year include: Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, Jess Walter’s Financial Lives of the Poets, and Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.

(See Natalie’s gift ideas from 2009.)


When I was a kid, my aunt in Florida worked at a toy store, and she would send a huge box of presents to me in Texas since she could get everything wholesale. I loved seeing that box arrive. Yes, I was one of those kids who counted how many presents I had and cheered when a new one appeared. As an adult, I have thankfully matured (somewhat), though I still love seeing presents under the tree. My partner and I make it more of a game, though. We have a limit of $100 that we are allowed to spend on each other (we also do not give gifts on birthdays or anniversaries but stick to cards and dinner out). In the past, we would each go to the mall and various department stores and pick up five or six things for each other. Now, we pretty much stick to each other’s Wishlist, and we pretty much try to buy the cheapest things on it from second-hand booksellers. The goal is to get as much as possible while still sticking to our limit. The really fun part of this is that all of the books, DVDs, CDs, and other items that cost one cent (with $3.99 shipping) are the things that are the oldest, the things we put on our lists back in 2005 or 2006, so it really is a surprise to get them. We do review our own lists each September to remove anything we no longer want, but each of us still has a list that is over nine pages long. I was able to get sixteen things for him this year, but he says he has more on the way for me. We don’t mind getting old library books or scuffed covers (though we stay away from books that are highlighted (highlit?) or marked on the inside), and it really is fun to open everything on Christmas morning before a big breakfast and an afternoon of our favorite Christmas DVDs. So, this year, I’m not offering any specific items to the gift guide but instead pointing out more of a method for buying. Our limit has worked great for us this past decade, and playing this game of going for multiple cheap items has created a sense of fun that reminds me of being a kid and counting all the little presents just for me. Of course, now I have to get to wrapping all the ones I’m giving him.

(See Nels’ gift ideas from 2009.)

There you have it. We certainly hope you’ve found an idea or two for your list of gifts this year!

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Sam Howzit]

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