'Tis the coffee-table book season


American publishers continue to throw down the gauntlet by producing extraordinarily beautiful coffee-table books, just in time for the holidays. Herewith, a selection of the year’s most stunning coffee table books.

The most lavish book of the year is “Birds of America” (Norton), a facsimile reproduction of Audubon’s Bien edition that began in 1858 and ended with the Civil War. Only 150 plates were produced, and very few of them remain today. The slipcased book is less a coffee-table book than it is a coffee table — it weighs over 20 pounds and really needs its own stand. The digital imaging is painstaking and even reproduces the color bleeds on the backs of the lithographs.

Also in a similarly huge format is “Cosmos” (Quercus), a compendium of breathtaking photos deriving mostly from the Hubble telescope that benefit from enlarged reproduction. The eerily beautiful shots of distant galaxies prove conclusively that God is an artist. The book comes with instructions about downloading a smartphone app that will, when the book is viewed through the lens, enable the pictures to move. Innovative!

Downshifting to more conventional formats: A few years ago the Flagler Museum did a breathtaking show of Tiffany glass that included lamps, windows, and all manner of paraphernalia united only by the fact of its origin and beauty. “The Art Glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany” (Vendome) is probably the best single book about the artist even though it doesn’t involve the lamps. It does, however, go into much non-academic detail on the artist and his workshop, and most of the glass on view hasn’t traveled, nor is it likely to. Paul Doros, who specialized in glass at Christie’s, has made a genuine contribution to understanding one of the most sensuous 20th century artists.

London’s Imperial War Museum undoubtedly contains the single greatest repository of World War I photographs, which makes “The Great War: A Photographic Narrative” (Knopf) a real event. The book covers all of the expected fields of battle, such as the Somme, but it also covers aspects of the war that are usually given short shrift — the Middle East, Mesopotamia, the Italian campaign, and all the rest. This is a great accomplishment in visual storytelling, and gives an overwhelming sense of the squalid deaths suffered by millions.

The Autry Museum of the American West is a gem, and “Colt: The Revolver of the American West” (Rizzoli) is a history of the firearm company told through guns in the museum’s collection. These range from the Buntline Special, a pistol with a 16-inch barrel that may or may not have been used by Wyatt Earp but was certainly used by Hugh O’Brian in the popular 1950s TV series, to John Wesley Hardin’s 1877 pistol, to a stunning pair of gold-plated Single Action Army models once owned by Tom Mix. Great history, entertainingly presented.

“Vanity Fair: 100 Years” (Abrams) is more than a compendium of great faces of the haut monde of the past hundred years, it’s a compendium of great photographers, from Steichen to Leibovitz. Editor Graydon Carter also presents a sizable section of memorable writing featured by the magazine, from the sly-puss work of Robert Benchley to the stentorian logic of Christopher Hitchens. It’s a reminder that even celebrity can occasion meaningful journalism.

There have been hundreds of books published about Art Deco, but none has been bigger, and, probably better than Norbert Wolfe’s “Art Deco” (Prestel), which uses everything from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” to cocktail shakers to demonstrate the aerodynamic power of Deco.

“Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait” has an odd format — larger than a conventional trade book, not as large as a conventional coffee table book. In truth, Kendra Bean’s book is a biography of the late actress, and a good one, that just happens to be generously illustrated with photographs that you’ve never seen before.


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