Imagine trekking across the Chang Tang nature reserve in Tibet, where graceful antelopes forage for food amid patches of summertime snow. Picture yourself in Botswana, peering into the jaws of an angry hippopotamus--so close that you can see ridges on his incisors. Step back in time to accompany British explorers early this century to what is today Northern Iraq, where Kurdish tribal leaders greeted them. Examine a small-scale model of Chartres cathedral or the Sydney Opera.
With the help of this year's bountiful crop of coffee-table books, you--or the folks on your holiday shopping list--can do all this and more. As always, dozens of titles showcase beautiful artwork or speak to passions from food and wine to music. But the best of the lot, rather than simply compiling a collection of attractive photos, offer something that can draw people back repeatedly--an experience, a mood, or a rich slice of history. Most of these titles retail for $75 or less, and online booksellers offer 30% discounts, making many relative bargains.
EXOTIC PLAINS. Tibet's Hidden Wilderness (Harry N. Abrams, $45) is one fine example. The noted naturalist George Schaller, director for science at the Wildlife Conservation Society, took the arresting photographs on numerous visits to the Chang Tang, or northern plain, of Tibet. He also wrote the fascinating text, which interweaves the history of Western explorers in Tibet with tales of studying rare mammals, such as the wild yak and the Tibetan brown bear. Thanks in part to Schaller's efforts, the Chinese government has set aside 125,000 square miles as a protected reserve. Among the many books that are now available about Tibet, Schaller's is a clear standout.
Also spellbinding is Eye to Eye (Taschen, $39.99), a portfolio of animal closeups by the Netherlands-born photographer Frans Lanting. Working alongside animals in the wild as well as in captivity, Lanting photographed an array of creatures from panthers to penguins in such a way that the viewer has a sense of looking into an animal's soul. Perhaps that's because Lanting, whose work often appears in National Geographic magazine, found himself "thinking and moving like an animal" in setting up many shoots, he writes in notes at the back of the book.
Much as a fine nature book can transport a person to another place, a good visual history can transport someone to a different culture and period. Kurdistan (Random House, $100) is an ambitious assemblage of photos and documents about the Kurds, a Muslim people living in an area that spans parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
Today, the Kurds may be best known for the violence that they have suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein's armed forces. But what is their history? This elegant scrapbook tells of contacts early in this century between the mountain-dwelling Kurds and British travelers. It also delineates the Kurdish people's decades-long struggle for political autonomy. Photojournalist Susan Meiselas has painstakingly collected the materials that make this a riveting introduction to the Kurds. The historical summaries by Dutch anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen, however, are disappointingly dry.
It's quite the opposite with Alan Brinkley's much lengthier contributions to Eyes of the Nation (Knopf, $75), a visual history of the U.S. that mines the riches of the Library of Congress. Historian Brinkley presents sprightly and informative introductions to different periods in American history. Selections from the library's collection follow, including European maps of the new world, cartoons, posters, and photos. The explanatory captions are excellent, too. Devotees of any period of U.S. history will enjoy this volume.
The Depression years come into unusual relief in Berenice Abbott: Changing New York (The Museum of the City of New York and The New Press, $60). Included are all 307 black-and-white images--mostly of buildings and storefronts--that Abbott took for an arts project funded by the government's Works Progress Administration. Abbott, who studied with the surrealist Man Ray in Paris, became best known for her photographs of New York City. These pictures capture the grandeur--as well as the humble simplicity--of Gotham's buildings in the mid-1930s.
For a far different architectural experience, unfold The Architecture Pack (Knopf, $50). Models of famous buildings, such as the John Hancock Center in Chicago, pop up, while principles of architecture, such as tension structure, are well demonstrated through drawings and sample constructions. Peppered with short biographies of architects and interesting facts (the word "mausoleum" derives from the monument to the Greek king, Mausolus), The Architecture Pack is like a whirlwind course in the discipline.
SILK PAINTINGS. A number of worthwhile art books are out. They range from The Private Collection of Edgar Degas (Harry N. Abrams, $65), linked to the current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to Thomas Moran (Yale University Press, $60), published in association with the National Gallery of Art, where his distinctive landscapes are on display. But the most impressive art book is Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting (Yale University Press, $75).
The product of an unprecedented collaboration between Chinese and U.S. scholars, this comprehensive review offers a detailed text and stunning photographs of Chinese art, ranging from 700-year-old landscapes meticulously painted on silk to the free-style brushwork of artist Qi Baishi in the 1940s and 1950s depicting nature scenes.
The holiday season also brings the usual run of books about food, wine, and music. Among the notable entries is Food Markets of the World (Harry N. Abrams, $35), a pleasurable tour through some of the world's most colorful markets, with a smattering of recipes and a mouth-watering text by restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton.
The New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia (DK Publishing, $50) is an exhaustive, user-friendly guide for oenophiles--or would-be ones. And for those who enjoy lighting up after a good meal and fine wine, Habanos: The Story of the Havana Cigar (Rizzoli, $50) offers an inside look at Cuba's farms, towns, and factories that produce this famous export.
Music buffs might enjoy 88 Keys: The Making of a Steinway Piano (Clarkson Potter, $25). With detailed drawings, the book tells how the instrument is made and provides a lively company history.
For another mood entirely, try Seeing Jazz: Artists and Writers on Jazz (Chronicle Books, $35). Drawing on paintings by Romare Beardon, writings by Toni Morrison, and a host of others, the book summons up the rhythms of this uniquely American art form. From the sounds of New Orleans to the haunting beauty of Tibet, evocations of other places, periods, and moods characterize the best of this holiday season's gift books.