As usual during the holidays, bookstores (sans the late, lamented Borders) are loaded with gift books, otherwise known as "coffee table books" The lousy economy means there are fewer new gift books than we were accustomed to way back in, say, 2007, but there's one advantage, too: Some excellent gift books published in the past couple of years are now on the stores' sales shelves. If you like to give what I call Fabulous Doorstops — e.g., big books o' roses, kittens and scenes from Tuscany — go ahead and do your thing. If, on the other hand, you prefer books that are more than pretty dust collectors, here is a selection of gift books you may find creative or interesting, or both.
• Pilgrimage by Annie Leibovitz (Random House, 246 pages, $50).
Annie Leibovitz, renowned for her pop star photos, changed gears for this fantastic book, shooting subjects that mean a great deal to her, and letting her intuition lead her from subject to subject. The result is a deep collection of wonderful images, both widescreen and small-scale. Big, vertiginous shots, full of Niagara Falls' power, for instance, are matched with close, intimate photos of some of her favorite artists' and thinkers' homes and possessions. Included, among others, are the view out the window of the greenhouse where Virginia Woolf wrote; Sigmund Freud's couch; Elvis' Harley; Emily Dickinson's lone surviving dress; and the delicate skeleton of a pigeon studied by Darwin. Through those shots, the famous and legendary become nearly familiar, or at least closer, more human and maybe even more understandable. Of all the books reviewed here, this is the sure keeper.
• Rock Seen by Bob Gruen (Abrams, 288 pages, $45).
If you want to give the gift of great music photos, you honestly cannot do better than these thrilling images from Bob Gruen's 40-year-long career as one of rock's iconic photographers. Gruen curated his favorite photos, ranging from early-but-splendid shots of Ike & Tina Turner and the early punk scene at CBGB in NYC, to Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Clash, the Ramones, and, um, Cher. Astonishingly acrobatic live Elton John shots sit near private photos of John and Yoko, followed by glimpses of the boozed-up Sex Pistols you may wish you hadn't seen. I've seen hundreds of "rock photo" books, including Leibovitz's, and Gruen's new collection is my favorite.
• MetaMaus: A Look Inside A Modern Classic by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, 300 pages, $35, Hardback book + DVD-R).
This is the 25th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Art Spiegelman's two-part comic book masterpiece Maus. The family tale of Holocaust survival, featuring Jewish prisoners as mice and Nazis as cats, redefined the role of comics, and also changed views of how the Holocaust could be portrayed. In MetaMaus, Spiegelman provides a close-up look into how he created his historic work, with deep insights into the creative process, side-by-side with photos, drawings, and wit and humor galore. Plus, there's a DVD-R that includes a digitized copy of Maus, and an archive of audio interviews with Spiegelman's survivor father, historical documents and loads of the artist's private notebooks and sketches.
• Solar System: A Visual Exploration of All the Planets, Moons and Other Heavenly Bodies that Orbit Our Sun by Marcus Chown (Black Dog & Leventhal, 224 pages, $29.95).
From the CalTech team that produced the unexpectedly popular The Elements, this is an exciting combination of NASA's incredible space photography and computer-generated imagery. It gives you a kind of front-row seat on a tour of all the celestial bodies in our corner of the universe, including the eight planets, their moons, the sun, the asteroids, dwarf planets (welcome back, Pluto!), the frozen Kuiper Belt, you name it. This is a genuinely amazing book of hundreds of images that should thrill anyone even remotely interested in astronomy.
• Complete Record Cover Collection by R. Crumb (W.W. Norton, 96 pages, $27.95).
If your giftee is a fan of R. Crumb's iconic comics art — or if he/she simply remembers the cover of Joplin's Cheap Thrills album — consider giving this niche publication, featuring dozens of record covers produced by the comics legend over the years. Particularly striking are Crumb's drawings interpreting old 78 rpm blues songs like "Harmonica Blues," "Truckin' My Blues Away," and the immortal "Please Warm My Weiner."