Wake Up And Open The Coffee Table Books

This season's crop goes from mopheads to mummies

When I first cracked open The Beatles Anthology, a hot-selling new coffee-table book, I happened on a photo of Paul McCartney giving a guitar lesson to Ed Sullivan, the variety-show host. It brought me back to a time I hadn't thought of in years--that Sunday in February, 1964, when the Beatles first appeared on American TV, and no kid in my neighborhood could talk of anything else in the days that followed.

That feeling of nostalgia is typical of the emotions aroused when I dug into this season's crop of coffee-table books. The offerings are dominated by beautifully illustrated books full of inside stories that look back on different aspects of the last century, from classic cars to the civil rights movement.

The Beatles Anthology (Chronicle, $60), with 2 million copies printed worldwide so far, could be among the top-selling coffee-table books ever. Partly based on 1995 interviews with the three surviving band members (the Beatles are listed as the authors), this 368-page tome is a marvelous trip down Penny Lane. It's illustrated with some 1,300 snapshots, handbills, handwritten notes, and other memorabilia. There is much compelling stuff, such as a 1960 shot of the boys looking impossibly young during a tour of Hamburg.

The text is more problematic. It's in a repetitive Q&A format that allows each Beatle to have his say on every subject. Comments of John Lennon, who was murdered in 1980, are culled from old interviews, and they often seem out of sync. Still, juicy tidbits abound. Paul McCartney tapped out When I'm Sixty-Four on his father's piano when he was around 15. Strawberry Field was a Liverpool orphanage. And you get a confirmation of the catalyst in the group's breakup. (Hint: Her first name is Yoko). A tip: The book is going for 40% off at Amazon.com.

Another classy blast from the past is Vanity Fair's Hollywood (Viking Studio, $60), a collection of movie-star portraits from Vanity Fair magazine. There are some great vintage photos, such as shots by Edward Steichen of Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks, and W.C. Fields (in his pajamas). But the book is fun largely because of the campy celebrity shots by Annie Leibovitz. Catch the 1992 photo of Jack Nicholson, clad in nothing but a bathrobe, slippers, and sunglasses, posed on an artificial putting green overlooking a Los Angeles hillside. Articles by famous contributors to the magazine, such as Dorothy Parker, are interspersed among the photos.

Another cool nostalgia trip is provided by Roadside America: The Automobile and the American Dream (Abrams, $49.50). Lucinda Lewis went around the country shooting classic cars in front of drive-ins, diners, motels, and other icons of pop culture. Check out the '57 Ford Thunderbird and '60 Studebaker Hawk in front of the Route 66 Diner in Albuquerque.

CAFE LIFE. Francophiles and aficionados of vintage black-and-white photography will enjoy Brassai (Bullfinch Press, $75). Translated from the French, it's about the life and work of the famed photographer, who haunted the streets of 1930s Paris at night, taking eerie, high-contrast photos of everything from kiosks to streetwalkers. He was also justly famous for his chronicles of cafe life and later portraits of artists such as Picasso.

Picasso himself remains compelling. The Ultimate Picasso (Abrams, $95) is one of the best overviews of his career. Written by three art historians, it traces the artist's development from his youth in Barcelona to shortly before his death in 1973, at 92. The quality of the reproductions is uneven, but the best ones--such as that of Night Fishing at Antibes, from 1939--are stunning.

Two very different art books also are worth noting. Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings (Abrams, $85) revisits the career of the original Renaissance man in light of new scholarship and the recent restoration of key paintings, including The Last Supper. Painters of the American West: The Anschutz Collection (Yale University Press, $45), documents the collection of Denver businessman Philip Anschutz. It includes excellent works done out West by famous modern artists such as Stuart Davis and some of the best works of classic Western artists such as Frederic Remington.

For sports nuts, Sportscape: The Evolution of Sports Photography (Phaidon Press, $49.95) is a real treat. This is an accessible history of sports photography, with short bits of text about sports milestones as well as major changes in the profession, such as the advent of high-speed color film and telephoto lenses. An interesting sidelight: the evolution of athletes' bodies, from the slightly fleshy ones of yore (boxer Rocky Marciano) to their ultrabuffed counterparts of more recent times (Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson).

Another good buy is Life: Century of Change (Bullfinch Press, $60). A follow-up to last year's best-seller Life: Our Century in Pictures, it focuses on the social, cultural, and artistic changes in the U.S. over the last century. The book offers short essays by prominent writers, including Erica Jong on sex and Yale Professor David Gelernter on the century's many speedy new machines. The photos are memorable and often amusing. Check out the one on page 340 of two men in suits being sprayed with a garden hose. The point: The suit made from a wool-Dacron blend has fewer wrinkles.

King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Viking Studio, $40), bills itself as the first photobiography of the civil rights leader. Novelist and University of Washington Professor Charles Johnson wrote the text, and veteran photographer Bob Adelman chose the black-and-white images. One of the most moving: A young, innocent-looking King with a numbered tag on his chest, having his mug shot taken during 1955 protests in Montgomery, Ala.

History of another kind is the subject of Valley of the Golden Mummies (Abrams, $49.50). It chronicles the excavation of a burial site discovered in 1996. Author Zahi A. Hawass, a top Egyptian archeological official, has a vivid writing style and an eye for detail. A good companion volume is Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries (Thames & Hudson, $40), which documents all the major Egyptian digs, from Hawass' back to some from the early 19th century. As with most of this year's coffee-table books, you get a fresh take on a familiar subject, with lots of great illustrations.