Worth a thousand words

For the last-minute holiday shopper, Salon presents a sumptuous selection of gift books.

By Salon Staff

Published December 20, 2000 6:10PM (EST)

No matter how esoteric his interests or how finicky her taste, the most perplexing person to shop for can usually be pleased with a well-chosen gift book. Even the season's most popular choice so far -- "The Beatles Anthology" -- won't appeal to everyone, so we've compiled our own list of recommended books for the procrastinating holiday gift-giver. (First and foremost, of course, we'd suggest two new Salon-related titles: "The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" for friends and family with a literary bent, and "Wanderlust," a collection of stories from our late lamented travel site.)

The books listed here (with the notable exception of the first) place the emphasis on images rather than words, but all of them feed the mind as well as the eye.

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The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th edition)
Houghton Mifflin, 2,074 pages

For word buffs in a lexical slump, this jazzy new edition of a classic dictionary will provide a pleasing jolt. The American Heritage Dictionary has been long and justly acclaimed for its marginalia -- drawings and photographs illustrating entries ranging from a drogue parachute (it slows down race cars) to Spike Lee. Although true AH aficionados surveying this, the fourth, edition will miss some old classics like the illustration for "cleavage" (a drawing of Marilyn Monroe), there are still over 1,000 droll choices and illuminating images, all in full color, including a series of three photos that shows a building being imploded.

The decision to incorporate the names of famous people and places in the main index (instead of providing separate biographical and geographical indexes at the back) will no doubt vex traditionalist readers, but everyone -- or at least everyone with a computer that runs Windows -- should appreciate the accompanying CD-ROM, mostly for the audio files of 70,000 spoken pronunciations. Alas, being a Mac user I was unable to savor the notoriously diverse number of pronunciations of the word "almond" or settle my nagging concerns about how to say "debauchery," but I diverted myself with a survey of the print version's many asides, including a usage note regarding "bring" (its meanings vary regionally), a history of the word "fiction" and an item about the word "geek" under the rubric "Our Living Language."

--Laura Miller

William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books
Edited by David Bindman
Thames and Hudson, 464 pages

The fierce and fantastical 18th century poet William Blake invented his own method of printing words and images together on a page. Unfortunately, he was only able to produce one book at a time in this way, so few of them exist. This captivating book gathers plates of the pages of all of his illuminated books in one volume.

Once you see Blake's poetry this way, with his swooping, stylized handwriting creeping around his shimmering, expressive human figures and strangely surreal landscapes, you understand his famous line: "I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man's." Blake's art and poetry are perfectly wed -- as you page through this book, there's a sense of entering into a rich and complete imaginative world. All of Blake's 17 illuminated volumes are included, from "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" to "The Book of Los," and there's an introduction by Blake expert David Bindman.

--Maria Russo

Sacred Legacy: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian
By Edward S. Curtis; Christopher Cardozo, editor
Simon & Schuster, 192 pages

This breathtaking collection of almost 200 of Edward Sheriff Curtis' photographs has something for anyone who cherishes their tiny part in humanity or who grieves at an unspeakable American tragedy -- the plight of Native Americans. These turn-of-the-century, sepia-toned portraits of dignified Indian chiefs, graceful loom-spinners and bound papooses are so candid and mournful, your visceral response to their brave sadness might startle you. The text features sagacious verse from about the same era, written by a people altogether cognizant of their culture's imminent destruction. Curtis lost almost everything he had in his 30-year endeavor to capture and preserve these hypnotic, even sacred images, but in this book his compassion remains. It's the legacy of a man who could capture in a downward glance or an upheld chin or a leathery, sun-soaked brow, the soul, memory and suffering of a nation.

-- Suzy Hansen

The New Yorker Book of Technology Cartoons
Edited and with an introduction by Robert Mankoff
Bloomberg Press, 144 pages

Some people love computers; some people hate 'em. But nobody -- at least nobody I know -- doesn't like New Yorker cartoons. And in "The New Yorker Book of Technology Cartoons," cartoon editor Robert Mankoff has assembled 110 of the magazine's wriest takes on technology, targeted to technophiles and technophobes alike. The cartoons, which readers of the magazine may recall seeing the first time around, tackle topics ranging from the high tech to the low tech.

In one by Leo Cullum, a buffalo on a cellphone comments, "I love the convenience, but the roaming charges are killing me." In another, Roz Chast conjures a new, improved washing machine with "the complete cycle": "fill tub, wash, rinse, lose sock, spin." Others address issues raised by our new online culture. From Peter Steiner comes a now-legendary classic: Two dogs in front of a computer; one says to the other, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

Difficult to resist devouring in one bite (it's like skipping dinner and getting to eat everyone else's dessert in addition to your own), the book comes with a CD-ROM containing all the cartoons in e-mail-ready GIF format. So e-mail-overloaded buyer beware, if you give this book as a gift, it's likely to come back to you.

--Amy Reiter

Julia's Kitchen Wisdom
By Julia Child
Alfred A. Knopf, 127 pages

Cookery is the love child of art and chemistry; it's both intuitive and based on a set of perfectly rational, if homely theories. Once you've grasped a handful of these precepts, recipes seem less like mysterious sacred texts to be followed to the letter and more like riffs on a few classic themes. This manageable volume by Julia Child (derived from a best-of TV special that compiled "snippets" from her early shows) makes a delightful refresher course for the practiced cook and a good next step for those who've had some luck with recipes but don't really understand how they work. Child offers "master recipes" for soups and sauces as the starting point for myriad variations, and she explains the nuts and bolts of roasting meats, rescuing a curdled Hollandaise, baking bread and making sure your soufflés don't fall.

This is less a cookbook than a manual of repertory skills, but it's not for novices -- if you don't know how to degrease a stock, you'll be lost right out of the gate. Every practiced cook will already know some of this, but few will know all of it, and all will appreciate that it comes amply garnished with Child's legendary, down-to-earth enthusiasm and charm and some vintage photos of the grande dame herself.

-- Laura Miller

Rolling Stone: The Seventies
Edited by Ashley Kahn, Holly George-Warren and Shawn Dahl
Little, Brown, 288 pages

Most of the people who'd be interested in "Rolling Stone: The '70s" probably lived through the decade themselves, so there's not much more they can learn from this book. Largely a collection of essays by old-time '70s stalwarts (Glenn O'Brien, Bob Greene) reflecting on the days way back when, this is a great gift book for anyone whose idea of holiday fun is to light up a joint after the turkey has been consumed.

Still, it does contain essays from some writers we don't hear from often enough (Donna Gaines on Led Zeppelin, Billy Altman on the early days of punk). The pictures are groovy, and the timeline is relatively useful. Did you happen to remember that on Sept. 14, 1976, 14 Czech rockers, including members of Plastic People of the Universe, faced trial for charges including antisocial behavior and anarchism? Useful information, particularly good for hurling at teenage ingrates who just don't know how good they have it.

-- Stephanie Zacharek

Photolanguage: How Photos Reveal the Fascinating Stories of Our Lives and Relationships
By Robert U. Akeret
W.W. Norton, 238 pages

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the average photo-stuffed American home is screaming for attention. Robert Akeret, the author of "Photolanguage," is a practicing psychoanalyst, so who better to explain how you can mine your photo albums for the real story behind your family's facade? "Photolanguage" features dozens of posed and candid photographs, pointing out the kinds of things that speak volumes -- are the people in the photo looking at one another? Are they touching? Do their expressions seem comfortable or forced? The book also calls attention to the patterns in photo albums that families put together. Did your parents save several pictures of you over the years strumming an air guitar? It could mean you were born to rock, but it could also mean that your parents just want to see you that way, and that's why they chose to save those photos.

Akeret mixes photos of celebrities -- a clearly alienated Princess Diana with a bored-looking Prince Charles and their kids; a tearful, vulnerable Monica Lewinsky and her father -- and ordinary people. Some of his interpretations seem a little off the mark, but that's part of the fun -- after all, there's more than one story behind any picture.

--Maria Russo

Hats in the Ring: An Illustrated History of American Presidential Campaigns
By Evan Cornog and Richard Whelan
Random House, 318 pages

The 36-day hangover of the presidential election of 2000 has finally ended, but the writing and rewriting of history has hardly begun. Though many will cry fatigue at the thought of stomaching more political rancor, it's also likely that scores of citizens have felt stirrings of interest in America's curious process for picking a president.

"Hats in the Ring" comprises all 51 elections, these "remarkable amalgams of serious purpose and carnival spirits," in a lucid and often humorous look at what happens when America's finest dash toward the Oval Office. Its pages are sprinkled with Thomas Nast cartoons, magazine covers, campaign posters, propaganda cards and commercial freeze-frames. The book is informative, yes, and also fun: Chapter titles range from "The Nation Turns a Crooked Corner" (Hayes vs. Tilden, 1876) to "'In Your Guts You Know He's Nuts'" (Johnson vs. Goldwater, 1964). One can only guess what the Bush vs. Gore, 2000 chapter would be nicknamed. As for Bush the Elder's, it's "Meet Willie Horton."

-- Suzy Hansen

King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Charles Johnson and Bob Adelman
Viking Studio, 288 pages

It may not sound quite right to describe a collection of photographs chronicling the civil rights movement and the life of Martin Luther King as "elegant." But if visual elegance can ever convey a quality as elusive as dignity, then this book, with text by "Middle Passage" author Charles Johnson, covers the territory beautifully. Some of the images, like those from 1963 Birmingham, Ala., are still horrifying even if you've seen them dozens of times: attack dogs savaging clearly peaceful black protesters; an injured child lying in her hospital bed after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Sunday School.

Yet by its end the book feels more luminous than weighty or troubling. The lush, muted black-and-white of one of the final pictures, the funeral procession in which King's coffin was pulled along by a mule on a simple wooden cart, radiates peace and calm. If a picture can have that kind of effect, imagine what it must have been like to be there.

--Stephanie Zacharek

By Larry Clark
Grove Press, 64 pages

Your sullen niece. Your younger brother in the black lipstick. Your boss who wore leather pants before you could buy them at the Gap. These loved ones won't be happy with a nice illustrated volume of "A Visit From St. Nicholas." You need to give them something darker, something more extreme. You need the anti-coffee-table coffee-table book. You need "Tulsa."

Originally published in 1971, Larry Clark's thin book of photographs is a grim affair, a portrait of Clark's drug-addled friends and comrades, shot in Tulsa, Okla., in 1963, 1968 and 1971. The depressing, uncompromising black-and-whites depict a pregnant woman injecting speed, a dead baby resting in a coffin and a man screaming as a result of his self-inflicted gunshot wound. You see a few recurring characters, with clipped hair and goofy smiles at the start, long hair and blank stares at the end. Short captions run under several portraits: "dead."

This is depressing stuff, to be sure, but like the most harrowing murder ballads or the most debased loser lit, you often come out of the experience of listening, reading or looking with a better perspective on your own life. Your little sullen niece might realize the Christmas season isn't so awful after all.

-- Jeff Stark

Valley of the Golden Mummies
By Zahi Hawass
Abrams, 224 pages

Egyptology enthusiasts thrilled in 1996 to learn of the discovery of an enormous complex of undisturbed tombs at the Bahariya Oasis 230 miles southwest of Cairo. The hundreds of mummies found there are the remains of wealthy Egyptians (rather than royalty) and their servants, dating to the first and second centuries A.D., when Egypt was under Roman rule. This handsome volume of photographs from the ongoing excavation features lavish color photos of the gilded masks and cartonnages of the more affluent occupants of the tombs and, perhaps just as exciting to armchair archeologists, lots of shots of the dig in process.

Zahi Hawass, director of the Giza Pyramids and the field director of the Bahariya project, provides a text that rambles a bit, but winningly so, informing us that Bahariya is the fourth major site in Egypt to have been initially discovered by an animal (a donkey whose foot poked through the roof of one of the tombs -- there's a picture of him) and confiding that "there is nothing comparable to the smell one encounters upon approaching a mummified body that has been buried for two thousand years." The end of the book is somewhat padded with disquisitions on Egyptian religious beliefs and other sites in the area (including an ancient winery), but the accompanying pictures are so fascinating that it would be ungracious to complain.

--Laura Miller

A Thousand Hounds
by Raymond Merritt and Miles Barth
Taschen, 600 pages

The only problem with "A Thousand Hounds," which covers the history of dogs in photographs from 1839 to the present, is that 1,000 is too few. I want even more of these canine photos, from blurry daguerreotypes of Rovers who just couldn't contain their excitement long enough to endure the interminable shutter speed, to a 1998 portrait of a slender-snouted, silky white wolfhound who looks as if he knows all the secrets of both the universe and hair grooming. Every mood and mode of doghood is represented here. There are famous pictures you may have seen before (heiress and patron of the arts Peggy Guggenheim sporting a fetching pair of batwing sunglasses and clutching an armful of pampered pooches) and less-well-known ones that are winning nonetheless (Jörg Brockmann's wistful stray, his fur matted, but the playful glimmer in his eyes hardly diminished).

There are essays here, too, by photography experts Raymond Merritt and Miles Barth, as well as notable dog quotes from lots of famous people, but in the midst of so many eager faces and alert ears, I just couldn't sit still long enough to actually read them. Frisbee, anyone?

--Stephanie Zacharek

The Book Lover's Repair Kit
By Estelle Ellis, Wilton Wiggins and Douglas Lee
Alfred A. Knopf, 160 pages

Here's an idea whose time has come: A cosmetic surgery kit for beloved books that have seen better days. After all, sunlight, gravity and everyday wear and tear affect books as well people. Packaged in a handsome box that opens like a book and fitted with compartments for all the specialized tools of the trade -- brushes, glue, pH-neutral adhesive and so on -- this repair kit is a bibliophile's dream. A hardcover instruction manual is included, with step-by-step instructions for dealing with every kind of damage to books, from page tears to broken spines.

--Maria Russo

Quack! Tales of Medical Fraud from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices
By Bob McCoy
Santa Monica Press, 235 pages

Just about 200 years ago, doctors called "phrenologists" promoted the theory that the shape of a person's head determined his "moral constitution." In other words, if you've got a couple of bumps in the back of your noggin, one of these "experts" might see them as an indication of "secretiveness" or an "interest in wealth." This type of wacky science is just one example in this lively history of quackery; others feature preposterous medical devices and theories thought up to solve the most troublesome physical and mental problems of the day.

Author Bob McCoy uses the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis as his source and includes pictures of artifacts, newspaper clippings and advertisements for some of the craziest cures ever. Along with more familiar procedures like bloodletting, you'll learn about the belief that one can diagnose patients based on their "vibrations," the Trility Nose Straightener (an ancestor of today's surgical "nose job") and the Vibratory Chair, marketed to hospitals and steamship companies as a palliative for people "weary of waiting." This is a bizarre and enthusiastic book, perfect for anyone who savors the intersection of human folly and weird science.

--Suzy Hansen

Salon Staff

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