From Tiny To Tome, The Best Gift Books Of 2011

Illustration: Books wrapped up to be given as gifts.
Priscilla Nielsen for NPR

There is an important distinction to be made between a great book and a great gift book. Last month, the curious minds at W.W. Norton published a fascinating nonfiction keeper called The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Guide to History's 100 Worst Atrocities. In its own thoughtful way, it is genius. But you couldn't, in good faith, put a bow on it. The art book that thrilled me most this year, Saul Bass: A Life In Film & Design, is a picture-stuffed history of the master movie-poster and movie-credits designer. But would I recommend it to anyone other than a graphic designer or hard-core film geek? Not likely.

Any list of gift books has to keep some niche interests in mind. But within each of those subsets of enthusiasm — science, history, art, fashion, photography, etc. — there are books that demand to be spotlighted and are worth remembering at gift-giving time. This year's batch includes the most gargantuan one we've ever recommended — and one smaller than an iPad. No matter the size, they're all enriching page-turners. And by that we mean the actual turning of pages, not the flicking of your digits across the face of a Kindle Fire. That, you can save for a game of Fruit Ninja.

The New York Times Magazine Photographs

by Kathy Ryan

Hardcover, 448 pages, Aperture Foundation, $75, published September 30 2011 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The New York Times Magazine Photographs
Author
Kathy Ryan

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

It's easy to take them for granted, printed as they are on pulp and framed in something we routinely toss into the recycling bin. But compiled in an impeccably designed and gorgeously reproduced coffee table book, the photographs commissioned by The New York Times Magazine are a revelation — arguably, the most wide-ranging and accomplished photojournalistic body of work of the past many decades.

The measure of a great photography book isn't in the pictures alone; it's in the organization of its ideas, the pacing and provocative juxtaposition of its images — in a word, the book's intelligence. And Photographs (Aperture, $75) is smarter than most. Hundreds of vital photographers are showcased here, among them: Cindy Sherman, Dan Winters, Deborah Turbeville, Ryan McGinley, Mary Ellen Mark and Massimo Vitali. Food, reportage, portraiture, photo-illustration — the pages of this book practically vibrate with the color and culture and clashes of our times.

You might also consider:

Power: Portraits of World Leaders
By Platon, hardcover, 224 pages

If Power (Chronicle, $35) takes as its focus only a sliver of Photographs' scope, it's a fascinating sliver — especially in light of the coming election year. In fact, these images by bold portraitist Platon are so luminous and literally in your face that it humanizes the often inscrutable masks of, say, Mugabe or Netanyahu. Given recent revelations, Berlusconi's mischievous smirk will suddenly make sense to you, too.

Harry Potter Page to Screen

The Complete Filmmaking Journey

by Bob McCabe

Hardcover, 540 pages, Harper Design Intl, $75, published October 25 2011 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Harry Potter Page to Screen
Subtitle
The Complete Filmmaking Journey
Author
Bob McCabe

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

It has the heft and vintage feel of a tome you might find in the Hogwarts library. And if your little wizards have grown up watching the Harry Potter novels translated to the big screen, this meticulously detailed behind-the-scenes look at that process will cast a spell. Rush jobs are common in the "making-of" publishing genre, but Harry Potter Page to Screen (Harper Design, $75) has the intent and depth of something definitive.

The lush volume teems with screen grabs, illustrations, production stills, blueprints, gatefolds and the kind of stuff even Potterheads will find obsessive. Pages and pages are devoted to the CGI rendering of Buckbeak the Hippogriff, for example. Flip to the section titled "The Art of Harry Potter" to read all you could possibly need to know about the flocking of the films' centaurs. Hairier still was the impact on the cast of the death of actor Richard Harris, the original screen Dumbledore. Looking for a potion to cure your kid's Potter withdrawal? Avada Kedavra!

You might also consider:

The Annotated Peter Pan
By J.M. Barrie, hardcover, 504 pages

Weighty but still light-as-air, The Annotated Peter Pan (W.W. Norton, $39.95) marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Barrie's classic Peter and Wendy, which would forever come to be known as, simply, Peter Pan. In addition to the original novel, many seen-for-the-first time extras are here, including the turn-of-the-century photographs that inspired the creation of Peter and gave flight to Barrie's imagination.

Life upon These Shores

Looking at African American History, 1513-2008

by Henry Louis Gates

Hardcover, 512 pages, Knopf, $50, published November 22 2011 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Life upon These Shores
Subtitle
Looking at African American History, 1513-2008
Author
Henry Louis Gates

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Life Upon These Shores (Knopf, $50) finds its natural endpoint in the landmark inauguration of our country's first African-American president. But the centuries of triumphs it celebrates — so many of them earned as a result of excruciatingly painful struggle — make it clear that there are no endpoints. Beginnings — like those forged by Dred Scott or Marian Anderson or Rosa Parks or the survivors of Hurricane Katrina — are what propel history.

Compiled with rigorous ambition and scholarship by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., this book weaves nearly 900 images and reams of clear-eyed storytelling into an extraordinary chronology. Not only does a breathtaking range of African-American expression and experience emerge, a portrait of independence, fortitude and deep faith — the essence of American life — comes shining through.

You might also consider:

A History of the World in 100 Objects
By Neil MacGregor, hardcover, 736 pages

If the spirit of a people courses through Life Upon These Shores, the things we make — the vessels, the paintings, the drums, the maps, the weapons, the gadgets, even the credit cards — reveals all A History of the World in 100 Objects (Viking, $45), a fascinating alternative history from the director of the British Museum.

Art Museum

The Art Museum

by Phaidon Press

Hardcover, 992 pages, Phaidon Press, $200, published October 17 2011 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The Art Museum
Author
Phaidon Press

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Ten years in the making, The Art Museum (Phaidon Press, $200) is the boldest publishing experiment of 2011. While the rest of the industry is frantically digitizing and downsizing, the enthusiasts at Phaidon Press have forklifted into the marketplace a picture book of absurd proportions. The idea was to bind between two covers the entire history of art. The result is an epic of scholarship and rights wrangling — and a book so oversized (almost 19 x 14 inches) and heavy (18 pounds) it defies the dimensions of a conventional bookcase and even tests the limits of a coffee table. Imagine, then, what it will do to your lap.

But, oh, what it will do for the mind. Its more than 2,500 works of art, from museums and private collections in 60 countries, are spread over nearly 1,000 pages and, like it is in the Prado or Hermitage, organized into "rooms." Without getting off your duff, roam the hallways and soak in the glories of the Stone Age or the Italian Renaissance, or of Klimt or Klee or Kline. Richard Serra, whose massive steel sculptures are also seen here, uses a crane to move his works of art. You might need one, too, to move The Art Museum.

You might also consider:

De Kooning: A Retrospective
By Willem de Kooning, hardcover, 504 pages

MoMA's unprecedented exhibition celebrating the work of the Dutch American master is shuttering in January, but De Kooning: A Retrospective (The Museum of Modern Art, $75), the show's excellent companion catalog permanently captures the mystery and vibrancy of his seven decades of abstract expressionism.

The 50 Funniest American Writers

The 50 Funniest American Writers

An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to the Onion

by Andy Borowitz

Hardcover, 461 pages, Penguin Group, $27.95, published October 13 2011 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The 50 Funniest American Writers
Subtitle
An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to the Onion
Author
Andy Borowitz

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Satirist and protean Tweeter Andy Borowitz knows that humor is in the ear of the beholder. It's one of the reasons he shoved an asterisk (*According to Andy Borowitz) into the title of The 50 Funniest American Writers* (Library of America, $27.95), a pint-sized but still brimming compendium. Depending on the delicacy of your sensibility, you might find unfunny any number of the hilarious essays he has lined up for his literary equivalent of open mic night. Daily Show regular Larry Wilmore begins his essay, "If Not an Apology, at Least a 'My Bad,' " this way: "America has always had a strained relationship with its black citizens." Here's how Philip Roth's "Letters to Einstein" gets rolling: "Dear Mr. Einstein: I am writing you with a wonderful suggestion that I know would bring gigantic changes in the world and improve the lot of Jews everywhere."

Offended? Don't be. Nora Ephron's lifelong torment over her puny bust size inspired her brilliant "A Few Words about Breasts." When it comes to the funny stuff, even she'd tell you it's worth seeing the cup as half full. (Click here to read Mark Twain's 1879 essay on why he's decided to run for president.)

You might also consider:

What the Hell Are You Doing? The Essential David Shrigley
By David Shrigley, hardcover, 352 pages

Even more arch than the omnibus Borowitz is What the Hell Are You Doing? (W.W. Norton, $35), a collection of work from British wit David Shrigley, whose crude — that is to say, roughly rendered and unapologetically subversive — drawings and photographs regularly populate the pages of The Guardian but also rouse the swells at MoMA and the Tate.

Alexander McQueen

Savage Beauty

by Andrew Bolton, Susannah Frankel, Tim Blanks and Solve Sundsbo

Hardcover, 240 pages, Yale Univ Pr, $45, published May 31 2011 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Alexander McQueen
Subtitle
Savage Beauty
Author
Andrew Bolton, Susannah Frankel, et al

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Fashion, especially those haute couture get-ups that seemingly never get off the runway, makes a lot of people yawn. But this photographic showcase of the work of the late British designer Alexander McQueen is far more than a collection of four-color fashion plates. In fact, it's one of the most exhilarating art books of the year.

Presented minimally here, on mostly headless mannequins and against a neutral gray backdrop, McQueen's elaborate, often radical creations stimulate and make emotional and intellectual leaps in the way that great art does. The recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition from which the book is culled gave many young designers (and large audiences) their first physical experience of McQueen's work, and the impact — the lessons in color, scale, texture, thematic complexity and courage — will be enduring. Savage Beauty (Metropolitan Museum of Art, $45) renders McQueen's output in one dimension — we're talking prints on paper, after all, not the actual fingering of his finery. But the places it takes us are out of this world.

You might also consider:

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk
Edited by Thierry-Maxime Loriot, hardcover, 424 pages

The outer garment alone — an ingeniously designed slipcase cover that doubles as giddy homage to Gaultier's trademark horizontal blue stripes — almost justifies the sticker price of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier (Abrams, $125), a lavish tribute to France's favorite provocateur. But it's the sumptuous undergarments — the page upon page of Gaultier's joyous cirque du couture — that really sew the deal up.

Pilgrimage

by Annie Leibovitz and Doris Kearns Goodwin

Hardcover, 244 pages, Random House Inc, $50, published November 8 2011 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Pilgrimage
Author
Annie Leibovitz and Doris Kearns Goodwin

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

The road markers are jarringly few in Annie Leibovitz's Pilgrimage (Random House, $50). In truth, they're almost entirely absent. There are no chapters to speak of in this diaristic photography book; no significant breaks in the text to steer us from a discussion of one Leibovitz obsession to another. In the middle of a recounting of her sojourn to the Amherst, Mass., home of poet Emily Dickinson, a majestic Leibovitz image of Niagara Falls suddenly appears. In the thick of reading about gunslinger Annie Oakley, we turn the page and tumble into a photograph of the magnificently cluttered tool shed of peacenik folk hero Pete Seeger.

The effect perfectly evokes the dreamlike, wending nature of the celebrated photographer's somewhat spontaneous exploration of places and things related to, among many others, Lincoln, Darwin, Elvis and O'Keeffe. By putting Angelina and Arnold and her customary crew of dozens on hold, the consummate chronicler of the Vanity Fair set has given us something startlingly personal and unpolished — and along the way subtly echoed the mash-ups and odd resonances that are so much of our history.

You might also consider:

Linda McCartney: Life In Photographs
By Linda McCartney, hardcover, 288 pages

Leibovitz and photographer Linda McCartney traveled similar paths in the '60s, and the former contributes a beautiful written tribute to her late contemporary in Life in Photographs (Taschen, $69.99), a quite moving monograph compiled posthumously by McCartney's famous other half and the couple's three adult children. Paul and the kids were Linda's subjects of a lifetime, and humanity, tenderness and love leap from these pages.

Theodore Gray's Elements Vault

Treasures of the Periodic Table With 20 Removable Archival Documents, a Model Pop-up Atom, a Poster, Plus 10 Real Elements Including Pure Gold!

by Theodore Gray and Nick Mann

Hardcover, 128 pages, Black Dog & Leventhal Pub, $39.95, published November 30 2011 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Theodore Gray's Elements Vault
Subtitle
Treasures of the Periodic Table With 20 Removable Archival Documents, a Model Pop-up Atom, a Poster, Plus 10 Real Elements Including Pure Gold!
Author
Theodore Gray and Nick Mann

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

In recent years, the people at Black Dog & Leventhal have become the science nerd's best friend. They've been warming up to book critics, too, by fixing their smart and accessible science books with such hysterically descriptive subtitles that reviewing them almost becomes redundant.

A few years ago, the publishing house had a hit with The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. Authored and made especially kid-friendly by Popular Science columnist Theodore Gray, the book was a feast of microphotography and earthbound explorations of pretty out-there stuff. Elements Vault ($39.95) belongs right next to it on the family bookcase. It's one of those books we see more and more of these days — the kind packed with extra bits; a show-and-tell between covers. In this case, envelope-enclosed collectibles (postcards, reproductions of historic stamps, elaborate charts, mineral samples) relating to each of the periodic table's elements are bound into almost every eye-popping spread. Tucked within each book is even a bitsy nugget of gold — sufficiently safeguarded to foil prospecting shoplifters.

You might also consider:

Solar System: A Visual Exploration of All the Planets, Moons and Other Heavenly Bodies that Orbit Our Sun
By Marcus Chown, hardcover, 224 pages

In publishing, the law of science is that lightning can strike twice in the same place. The just-released Solar System (Black Dog & Leventhal, $29.95) replicates the formula and visual pizazz that made The Elements so successful. It's another stealth gem that dazzles the eye while slipping real science past your children's defenses.

The Art of Walt Disney

From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms and Beyond

by Christopher Finch and John Lasseter

Hardcover, 503 pages, Harry N Abrams Inc, $85, published October 1 2011 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The Art of Walt Disney
Subtitle
From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms and Beyond
Author
Christopher Finch and John Lasseter

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Its cover should look familiar. The first edition of The Art of Walt Disney appeared nearly 40 years ago, and despite its ample size, unapologetic serious-mindedness and inherently technical nature, it became a fixture in living rooms across America. It also inspired countless contemporary animators, among them John Lasseter, whose pioneering work at Pixar now extends the Disney animation tradition and is one of the subjects of this substantially expanded and revised reissue (Abrams, $85) of the classic 1973 book.

Since 1973, many of the fine traditional Disney films detailed here — The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast — have earned their place in the mouse-house pantheon. But it's tempting to think of what buttoned-down Walt would have made of, say, Tim Burton, whose deliciously weird Nightmare Before Christmas was Disney's first stop-action animation feature; or of Sid, the Toy Story enfant terrible prone to torturing his inanimate playthings. In the new Art of Walt Disney, Mickey, Woody, Snow White and even Sid get to giddily mix it up in the same sandbox.

You might also consider:

MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic
By Art Spiegelman, hardcover, 300 pages, Pantheon, list price: $35

At the risk of ruffling Donald's feathers, it could be argued that Maus, Art Spiegelman's aching Holocaust tale, is as compelling a comics creation as the best of Mickey. MetaMaus (Pantheon, $35) details the back story and making of Spiegelman's masterpiece, now 25 years old, and as an invaluable bonus it moves the entire saga onto interactive DVD, with hyperlinked audio commentary, voice recordings of Spiegelman's father, working sketches and essays.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

Hardcover, 2112 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $60, published November 1 2011 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
Author
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

There are many words we could use to describe The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $60) — a dictionary full of them, in fact. But "nostalgic" won't be one of them. During the writing of this year-end list, my dazzlingly sophisticated laptop noted the following words as misspelled: "unartful" and "remembering."

The editors of this fifth edition of the reference treasure spent the past decade motivated by their memory of great and vitally important reference books. Along the way, they crafted an exemplary, pictorially resplendent, deeply thoughtful and alive monument to the beauty of language, believing (or hoping) that their labors wouldn't be obviated by a $2 iPhone app. Among the 10,000 new words added was, remarkably, "asshat." It wouldn't have been our choice, but it does effectively describe anyone indifferent to the worry that our language is slipping away. Call me "redonkulous," but I'd recommend that this particular gift go out to every kid you know.

You might also consider:

Robertson's Book of Firsts: Who Did What for the First Time
By Patrick Robertson, 576 pages

Who wrote the first gift guide? That's about the only "first" not documented in Robertson's Book of Firsts (Bloomsbury USA, $35), an engrossing, one-of-a-kind reference manual. Did you know, for example, that "The first elevator music originated not in an elevator but as Musique d'ameublement ("furniture music"), which debuted at the Galerie Barbazanges in Paris on 8 March 1920"? Or that "The first surfboarding originated in Hawaii as part of ancient religious ritual"? We didn't think so. Now you can be the first to know.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.