The Help Desk: Bringing a book to a gun fight

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

I'm vibrating with anger and upset over school shootings. I'm totally optimistic about the response of teenagers who have more moral character than any politician I know.

I want to help my NRA-loving family see another side to this issue, without challenging their gun lust directly. Can you recommend some books that might make them feel good about their manly choices while also subtly undermining them for the goal of socialist liberalist pacifism?


Ginger, Greenlake

Dear Ginger,

I understand your motivation but what you are proposing has a slim chance of working, and here's why: it is an overbearing – and yet delightfully passive aggressive! – attempt to trick someone into self help. True gifts are given with the receiver's wants and tastes in mind, not the giver's.

How would you react if one of your relatives bought you More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws as a gift? My bet is you would be more resentful than appreciative. It would probably not make the top of your bedside reading stack.

If you want to make an honest attempt at helping your NRA-loving family see another side of this issue, you have to be open to seeing their side. You could suggest a short-lived family book club, where they choose a book that represents their perspective, followed by a book you feel represents yours. Or you could simply ask for a book recommendation from them and in turn recommend a book. Gun Guys: A Road Trip, might be a good read for all of you – it's a memoir about a Democrat and former New York Times writer who loves guns, driving around America (with his gun) and cataloguing his own and other people's thoughts on guns. If you're looking to recommend fiction that drills into the emotional trauma of gun violence, I have heard good things about Before You Know Kindness, which is about an accidental shooting in a family, and Only Child, which is a first-person narrative from the perspective of a child who survives a school shooting.

Both methods would be a more honest avenue at opening a dialogue than giving the gift of a book that is neither asked for nor wanted.