Coffee Table Books Are Rife With Millennial Musings

From glorious space shots to Norman Rockwell, just about every subject is covered

Every yearend is a time for reflection. This year, you get to reflect big-time. The turn of the millennium has inspired a raft of ambitious and beautiful books bringing the soon-to-be-concluded century into sharp focus. In these volumes, you'll find the great era-shaping people, events, and trends, from the growth of New York City to the evolution of pro football.

None of these fin de siecle works is more striking than Century (Phaidon Press, $49.95), conceived and edited by Bruce Bernard, former picture editor of London's Sunday Times and Saturday Independent magazines. A year-by-year pictorial history, it includes more than 1,000 extraordinary photos illustrating major political, cultural, and social themes of the past 100 years. The book is so huge it comes with a special carrying case with a plastic handle, but Century is anything but padded. Its photos range from the glorious (American astronaut Bruce McCandless hopping around in space) to the ironic (Hitler consoling a bedridden officer injured in an attempt on the dictator's life) to the horrific (beheaded corpses during the Boxer Rebellion in China). Short notes putting each photo in proper historical context make this a fascinating read.

If the pictorial approach to the century's events isn't your bag, you might want to look at American Greats (Public Affairs, $50), an eclectic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek collection of 81 essays edited by author Robert A. Wilson and retailer Stanley Marcus. Among its many treats is an essay by journalist Jack Hitt on Navajo code talkers who baffled Japanese cryptographers during World War II with radio messages in the ancient Navajo language. For a look at millennial achievements in a lighter vein, try Guinness World Records 2000 (Guinness Media, $29.95). Ever wonder what was the weight of the heaviest human brain ever recorded? Answer: that of an anonymous 30-year-old male from Cincinnati, 5 lbs., 1 oz.

If that isn't goofy enough for you, chuckle your way through The New Yorker 75th Anniversary Cartoon Collection (Pocket Books, $40). One of my favorites is a James Thurber drawing of a self-important lawyer leading a giant rabbit to the front of a courtroom while saying to the witness: "Perhaps this will refresh your memory." For more of a business theme, check out The New Yorker Book of Money Cartoons (Bloomberg Press, $21.95). In one, a graying exec says to his wife as they gaze out the window of their luxurious European hotel room: "Come on, honey. We may no longer be `nouveau', but at least we're still `riche."'

The 20th century has seen the film industry go from silent pictures to DVDs, and one good summing-up is The Movie Book (Phaidon Press, $39.95). Its one-page, alphabetically ordered entries cover 500 actors, directors, and others who have made a "landmark contribution" to the film biz. The format makes for fascinating juxtapositions. For instance, a photo of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal (the Cannibal) Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (under "D" for Jonathan Demme, the film's director) is opposite a page on biblical-extravaganza director Cecil B. DeMille.

WORKS OF ART. Another cultural theme worth exploring is Africa and African Americans. The two-volume African Ceremonies (Abrams, $150) is pricey. But some of the images in this book, written by photographer-writers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, are stunning. There's an extraordinary photo essay on the ritual burial of the mother of the chief of the Surma, a tribe of 30,000 in southwest Ethiopia that lives in isolation and whose married women still wear huge lip plates. In a more informational vein is the ambitious Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (Basic Civitas, $89.95). It contains entries on everything from African geography to Eddie Anderson, who played comedian Jack Benny's valet, Rochester.

Art and photo books are always popular around the holiday season, and this year's crop has a number of works pursuing broad historical themes. American Century: Art & Culture, a two-volume work (W.W. Norton & Co., $60 each) accompanying the current show at New York's Whitney Museum, is a good survey of 20th century trends. For a survey of art history worldwide, try Art: The Critics' Choice (Watson-Guptill Publications, $40), with essays by experts on 150 masterpieces.

The great populist illustrator Norman Rockwell has long been a guilty pleasure for some art lovers. Now his work is undergoing a reassessment by critics, making Norman Rockwell: Pictures of the American People (Abrams, $35) a topical gift. At the avant garde end of the spectrum is Young British Art: The Saatchi Decade (Abrams, $125). You still may not understand why New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is so angered by these works, many of which are on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. But you'll get a good look at one of the world's hottest art scenes.

Among photo books, Earth From Above (Abrams, $65) is a blockbuster. Aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand spent five years flying over 60 countries and came up with some spectacular images. A shot of dozens of carpets laid on the ground in Marrakech, Morocco, looks like a single patchwork quilt until you notice a man in white walking across the spread. For some far-from-deadpan portraits, check out Annie Leibovitz' Women (Random House, $75), appearing in conjunction with a show by the celebrated photographer at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art. Among the memorable images are a closeup of Barbara Bush's well-lived-in visage and astronaut Eileen Collins in a red space suit.

For an engrossing look at how the nation's largest metropolis grew up, thumb through New York: An Illustrated History (Alfred A. Knopf, $60). The main creative force behind the book (and PBS TV series on the city) is Ric Burns, who was co-author and co-producer with his brother, Ken, of the acclaimed similar book and series on the Civil War. For the sports lovers on your gift list, here are two possibilities. Golfers will go for Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses You Can Play (Abrams, $49.50). It gives handy hotel, restaurant, and side trip advice, as well as assessments of top U.S. courses where you can play without being a club member. Football fans will get a kick out of Best Shots: The Greatest NFL Photography of the Century (DK Publishing, $30). Classic shots such as the one of New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle, bloodied and on his knees after a 1964 defeat, are mingled with slicker, modern takes on the game. This book may not solve the age-old question of whether football is a metaphor for life. But it goes a long way toward demonstrating why millions of Americans stay glued to the tube so many hours every week.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.