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Detail from 'Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera' ()

Big And Beautiful: Best Gift Books of 2009

Nov 24, 2009

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In a year largely defined by $9.99 best-sellers and the rise of grayish E-readers, to even contemplate picking up a pricey and pictorially resplendent "big book" this holiday season seems like bucking the trend. Still, it lifts the spirit to know that in a time of radical downsizing, publishers remain dedicated to crafting gorgeous and stimulating coffee-table gems.

So many of them, in fact, that whittling my stack of possibilities down to the most gift-worthy 10 — with a mind to different interests and pocketbooks — was a job suited for a real Scrooge. Note that not every book here outweighs a holiday goose. Some are merely big in ideas. But two things are guaranteed with these lush and elaborately illustrated titles: A Kindle can't contain them (with one exception), and their pleasures and fascinations are endless.


Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera

Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, by Ron Schick, hardcover, 224 pages, Little, Brown and Co., list price: $40

Norman Rockwell: great artist, or master of American kitsch? No matter how you side in that heated debate, you'll find something to bolster your case in Ron Schick's startling deconstruction of the illustrator's work. For once, the word breathtaking might literally apply to a picture book; that's how initially deflating Schick's revelation is that most of Rockwell's immaculately detailed paintings were rendered from photographs he staged beforehand.

But the reviving thrill of the book is that Rockwell emerges a master storyteller in both media, a cut-up whose fearless play-acting inspired the famously expressive faces of the working-class folks who posed for him, and a tireless perfectionist who slaved at his canvas until each black and white photograph had been transformed into a luminous portrait of the human spirit. (Compare the photo study and final painting of Rockwell's The Runaway at left.)


Classic Children's Comics

The TOON Treasury of Classic Children's Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, hardcover, 352 pages, Abrams ComicArts, list price: $40

Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, the impeccably pedigreed editors of this impeccably compiled comic-strip primer, write in their opening essay of a time when the "adult world saw comics as junk culture." But today, they continue, "the once disreputable comic book confidently strides into bookstores, museums, and universities cleverly disguised as the upwardly mobile 'graphic novel.' " And without a doubt, buried in the loopy narratives and line drawings of this book's beautifully vintage pages are the childhood inspirations for many of our greatest contemporary graph-o-maniacs. Conceived as a vivid and imagination-sparking sampler for kids, this retro romp through the worlds of Nutsy Squirrel, Pogo, Burp the Twerp and Dennis the Menace (to name just four of the dozens of troublemaking 'toons here) will rivet the Mr. Wilsons among you, as well.


A New Literary History of America

A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, hardcover, 1,128 pages, Harvard University Press, list price: $49.95

A playground of a different sort, though one no less teeming with colorful characters, comes from the pointy heads in Harvard Square. This new-breed reference book — featuring freshly penned and eccentrically focused essays by a heterogeneous who's who of academics, journalists and authors — ventures to remap the expanse of American history through five centuries of literary and cultural landmarks. Merritt Roe Smith explores the legend of "Buffalo Bill" Cody and, with it, the impact of the Winchester rifle and rise of gun culture; Jonathan Lethem draws the line between photo pioneer Eadweard Muybridge's 1881 slideshow lecture, "The Attitude of Animals In Motion," and the birth of cinema; Sarah Vowell tackles American Gothic; Ann Marlow measures feminism and the meaning of Linda Lovelace, through analysis of the porn star's autobiography. Although it shares with its history-book forebears unimpeachable intellect and seriousness of intent, this is not the Oxford Companion to American Literature. For one thing, it's a lot more fun. (Read Jonathan Lethem's essay on Eadweard Muybridge and the birth of cinema.)


Painting Today

Painting Today, by Tony Godfrey, hardcover, 448 pages, Phaidon Press, list price: $75

Phaidon Press brings such consistently remarkable ambition to each of its hefty publications that the question is no longer, "How do they do it?" It's, "How long can they keep doing it?" Impeccably curated and exhaustively annotated by Tony Godfrey, the director of research at Sotheby's globe-spanning Institute of Art, Painting Today is another Phaidon tour de force of scholarship and sumptuous pictorialism. Don't be lulled by the book's staid cover. Just beyond its beige binding is a vibrant mash-up of modern masters (Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter, et al.) and new-generation provocateurs (Elizabeth Peyton, John Currin, many others): more than 500 images from 254 artists whose work spans the past 30 years. A powerful and eye-dazzling rebuke of the notion that painting is dead.


The Sartorialist

The Sartorialist, by Scott Schuman, paperback, 512 pages, Penguin, list price: $25

This year saw the publication of many exceptional fashion-photography books; most notable were visual feasts from Richard Avedon, Norman Parkinson and Lillian Bassman. But street photographer Scott Schuman's comparatively modest The Sartorialist is the size of a motel Bible for a reason. Its images — deceptively simple in their snapshot vernacular but all the more engaging because of it — are culled from Schuman's rabidly read and hugely influential blog of the same name. So often on runways and in glossy mags, the fashion world looks like a planet where other people live. Schuman's genius is finding the vibrancy of style in the everyday — and in the everyday people he shoots on real city streets. Picking up The Sartorialist stirs unexpected feelings, because, ultimately, it's not a book about hemlines and well-chosen hats; it's a tremendously satisfying celebration of self-expression and strut-your-stuff resiliency in even the most turbulent times.


Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life

Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, by Charley Harper and Todd Oldham, hardcover, 424 pages, AMMO Books, list price: $49.95

This gorgeously reproduced overview of the work of American modernist Charley Harper is a labor of love from Todd Oldham. In 2002, the celebrated designer sought out the aging and largely unheralded Harper after stumbling onto some of Harper's minimalist yet dizzyingly sophisticated illustrations in a rural Pennsylvania thrift store. Although he didn't know it at the time, the images resonated with Oldham for a reason: Harper's exuberantly colored drawings for a biology textbook had had a life-changing impact on Oldham as a kid. Harper's passionate subject was the natural world, and there is, unquestionably, a childlike wonder in his dozens of depictions of birds and insects and wildlife. Oldham's tribute to his hero (who died in 2007, at age 84) floats on the wings of these beautiful creatures and Harper's expressive, one-of-kind talent.


Science: The Definitive Visual Guide

Science: The Definitive Visual Guide, by Adam Hart-Davis, hardcover, 512 pages, DK Adult, list price: $50

If you have never dipped into one of innovative reference book publisher DK's spectacularly engrossing visual encyclopedias, you're missing a mind-expanding treat. This year alone, DK compiled deliriously detailed tomes devoted to the minutiae and magic of Pixar, prehistoric life, Marvel Comics, and all things Lego. DK's most essential 2009 title, Science: The Definitive Visual Guide, bridges the worlds of childhood and adult fascination, and along the way provides an indispensable distillation of some really, well, confusing stuff.

In pages that swell with history, factoid-rich info boxes, charts, stunning photographs and illustrations, seemingly everything under the sun is surveyed: subatomic particles, the internal combustion engine, space travel, string theory, the human genome, global warming. These books make an excellent case for the simplicity and effectiveness of the printed book; we'd be happy to have shown you some of these amazingly information-rich pages, but they are simply too detailed to fit on a computer screen. Not only will this work illuminate your sense of place in the world — it'll help with homework projects for years to come.


Photo-wisdom

Photo-wisdom: Master Photographers and their Art, by Lewis Blackwell, hardcover, 216 pages, Chronicle Books, list price: $50

This gift guide could have been expanded threefold just to accommodate magnificent new photography showcases from the likes of Brigitte Lacombe, Dan Winters, Nick Brandt, Irving Penn and Sally Mann. How to pick? I couldn't, so I'm opting instead for one book that gathers work from many great shooters. There are a number of excellent roundups this year; the most living room-worthy (though, like the others, it contains artful nudity) is Photo-wisdom, a large-format compilation work from a generation-spanning, genre-busting cadre of brilliant image-makers.

Glistening pictures from 50 photographers — among them, the most stately (Joyce Tenneson, Stephen Shore) and extreme (Erwin Olaf, David LaChapelle) — tell many different kinds of stories. So do the companion texts, in which the artists, in their own words, make their process more understandable and their outcome even more ineffable. (I'll mention two other excellent roundups: Abrams has published an affordable and very cool one called Photo:Box; and National Geographic brings its trademark depth and global perspective to the plus-sized Image Collection. )


Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire

Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, by Graydon Carter and Robert Risko, hardcover, 224 pages, Rodale Books, list price: $23.99

It's no insult to say that this next book, whose roots lie in a 19th century Parisian parlor game, makes an excellent 21st century bathroom read. It's just that the entries are short and highly entertaining. The so-called Proust Questionnaire was first co-opted by editor Graydon Carter for the back page of Vanity Fair in 1993. (Watchers of Inside The Actors Studio will be familiar with the version that host James Lipton uses on that show.) Since then, streams of famous folks have offered up their innermost vulnerabilities and wisecracks. What is your most prized possession? Ted Kennedy: "My brother's dog tags from PT 109." Your greatest accomplishment? Keith Richards: "Waking up." The thing you most dislike about your appearance? Jane Fonda: "My naked self in the overhead light." How would you like to die? Maureen Dowd: "After my enemies." The insights — sincere or just as revealing in their insincerity — are matched in piquancy by Robert Risko's accompanying, note-perfect caricatures. (See a roundup of a few favorite Q&As.)


Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans

Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, edited by Sarah Greenough, hardcover, 528 pages, Steidl, list price: $75

It's a no-brainer. How could an exquisitely intelligent expanded edition of what is arguably the greatest photography book of all time — Robert Frank's The Americans — not be 2009's photography book of the year? Published in conjunction with the touring exhibition of Frank's landmark portfolio of American life in the transformative late 1950s, Looking In gets underneath and around one celebrated body of photographic work like no other scholarly book before it.

Essays track Frank's immigrant roots and how his outsider's status enabled him to see the loneliness and upheaval behind 1950s-era cliches of domestic tranquillity. Maps and chronologies plot the points of Frank's yearlong march from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back again. Most invaluable are the book's 81 pages of contact sheets, the true road maps to Frank's decisive moments. What he captured about the American experience in those milliseconds of inspiration keeps speaking to us 50 years on and counting.

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