Coffee-table books make good gifts

Even in an economically pinched time, with book buyers chiefly looking for bargains, publishers continue to produce the customary array of lavish, large-format "coffee-table" tomes destined to become living-room decor or handsome gifts.

The selection is as broad (and deep) as ever, but an admirable starting point for this year's compendium of offerings is the landmark "National Geographic Image Collection" (National Geographic Books, $50).

Revealed here for the first time is the extent of one of the most unusual graphic archives in existence, containing resources from the earliest photographs collected in the late 19th century to today's cutting-edge work in exploration, adventure, science and more.

A meld of iconic and never-before-seen images from every corner of the planet, the book covers everything from myriad wildlife species to astonishing human achievements, all framed by a historic, artistic, technical and journalistic context.

The following is a mere sampling of the year's best coffee-table books:


Beginning with her charcoal drawings composed in 1915, celebrated artist Georgia O'Keeffe sought to transcribe pure emotion in her work. Though her output of abstract pieces declined after 1930, she returned to the form in the 1950s - with a new vocabulary.

"Georgia O"Keeffe: Abstraction" (Yale University Press, $65) vividly chronicles these periods.

The British Museum harbors an extraordinary collection of antiquities from ancient Greece and Rome.

"Masterpieces of Classical Art" by Dyfri Williams (University of Texas Press, $45) presents the highlights of the collection for the first time in print.

"Michael" by the editors of Rolling Stone (HarperStudio, $30), is a posthumous portrait of Michael Jackson from the triumph of "Thriller" to the tragedy of his passing, with tributes from Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones and others.


"The National Parks: Our American Landscape" by Ian Shive (Earth Aware, $39.95): The Ken Burns PBS series and its companion book certainly were evocative, but Shive's spectacular photography is even more convincing. Here, he captures some of the nation's most dazzling vistas.

Photographer Jack Kraus' immersion into the wilds of the Adirondacks has yielded a remarkable visual tapestry in "Adirondack Moments" (Firefly Books, $30), which also expresses a deep connection to the landscape.

Adam Duncan Harris explores the contributions of the great European artist-naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries in "Wildlife in American Art: Masterworks From the National Museum of Wildlife Art" (University of Oklahoma Press, $55).


A rich collection, "Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece" (Yale University Press, $65), studies the integral role of heroic figures in classic Greek art and culture, drawing on recent archaeological, literary and art history research.

"Knights: In History and Legend" (Firefly Books, $40) is a lavish collection of lore on knighthood and the chivalric ideal from the 11th century to the 15th century, focusing as much on daily life as derring-do.

"Gray Land: Soldiers on War" by Barry Goldstein (Norton, $35) includes photographs of and interviews with soldiers of the Iraq War, documenting the extraordinary challenges they face.

Samurai arms are masterpieces in steel, silk and lacquer.

"Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156-1868" (Yale University Press, $65), a companion book to the ongoing exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showcases the work of many of Japan's greatest swordsmiths from the early masters to the Edo Period.


Malcolm Gladwell introduces "On the Money: The Economy in Cartoons, 1925-2009" (Andrews McMeel, $25), featuring choice bits culled from The New Yorker by cartoon editor Robert Mankoff.

Likewise worthy of consideration are "Sports Illustrated: The Golf Book" (Sports Illustrated Books, $29.95); "Cezanne and American Modernism" (Yale University Press, $65); "Life in the Wild" (DK Publishing, $35); "The World in Vogue: People, Parties, Places" (Knopf, $75); "Graffiti World: Street Art From Five Continents" (Abrams, $35); "Twilight Visions: Surrealism and Paris" (University of California Press, $45) and "American Stories: Paintings From Everyday Life, 1765-1915" (Yale University Press, $60).