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Coffee-table books: A premium blend

Nothing in the gift-book lineup this year matches The Red Book, last year's spectacular facsimile of C.G. Jung's elaborately illuminated manuscript. Nor has any catalogue raisonné come our way.

"Modern Ruins" shows black-and-white decline all around us; "Still Life" and "Wonders of Life" are photography at its finest.
"Modern Ruins" shows black-and-white decline all around us; "Still Life" and "Wonders of Life" are photography at its finest.Read more

Nothing in the gift-book lineup this year matches The Red Book, last year's spectacular facsimile of C.G. Jung's elaborately illuminated manuscript. Nor has any catalogue raisonné come our way.

Still, there are plenty of books deserving an honored place in the home, if not on the coffee table, especially if you like masterful photography. There are volumes of photos featuring jazz at its most intimate, of still lifes that make us appreciate the world around us more than we usually do and nature at its most glorious and peculiar.

Art does get more than a nod, what with an overview of how it developed in the New World by mixing things up and another about how collections happen. Oh, and there is a look at how the ancients built those ruins we still visit, and another at the ruins that are all about us. And a lot more besides.

Prices are list, but remember: Bargains abound.

Ansel Adams: In the National Parks (Little, Brown, $40). Collections of Adams' photos are becoming as much a part of the holidays as Santa and tinsel. Adams photographed the national parks from the start of his career. Included here is a photo taken by the 23-year-old Adams of the 88-year-old landscape painter Thomas Moran, in 1925 in Yosemite. From a white stump in the Sierra Nevada to an aspen grove near the Grand Canyon to high clouds above Death Valley, Adams consistently demonstrates that there's a good deal more to photography than pointing and clicking.

Still Life in Photography by Paul Martineau (Getty Publications, $24.95). "All still lifes," Robert Musil wrote, "are actually paintings of the world on the sixth day of creation, when God and the world were alone together . . ." Paging through this wonderful little volume, it's hard not to agree. Photography took to still life right from the start. The earliest plate here is dated 1839-42. Plenty of famous names appear throughout - Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Sheeler, André Kertész. But also included are works by others who are hardly household names. Ogawa Kazumasa, for instance, whose 1896 Tree Peony (in color) is exquisite.

Wonders of Life: The Amazing World of Nature (Life Books, $29.95). Life for Life magazine ended three years ago, but collections of its extraordinary photographs continue to appear and probably will for quite a while. This one really is a perfect coffee-table book, a sort of stationary National Geographic special. From the mother polar bear cuddling her two cubs to the 2,170-year-old Jomon Sugi trees, the images here are as clear and bright as, well, life on a good day.

The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation by Maureen Taylor (Kent State University Press, $45). Gathered here are photographic images of people born during the Revolutionary Era who survived into the 19th century long enough to have their pictures taken (there are also two paintings and two drawings). So these are pictures of some Grand Old People, most of them not famous. Caesar, for instance (no last name), reputedly the last slave to die in the North, who looks far younger than 114 in his 1851 daguerreotype. A fascinating little book.

Modern Ruins: Portraits of Place in the Mid-Atlantic Region, Photographs by Shaun O'Boyle (Pennsylvania State University Press $42.95). Hear the word ruins and what likely comes to mind is the Colosseum or Machu Picchu. But there are ruins all around us all the time. As Geoff Manaugh points out in his introduction, "Ruins are that which has stuck around . . . longer than expected." Those old enough to have grown up in the shadows of factories have seen those same factories become either ruins or condos. O'Boyle's black-and-white photos capture both the grittiness and the poignancy of such disparate - yet oddly similar - sites as Eastern State Penitentiary, the Bethlehem Steel Works, and the bizarrely grand arsenal on Bannerman's Island near Cold Spring, N.Y.

Jazz, by Herman Leonard (Bloomsbury, $60). Everybody's here: the Duke and the Count, Billie and Ella, Stan Kenton and Stan Getz. Page through this gathering of Leonard's magical black-and-white shots and you feel as if you've been on the town all night going from one smoky cabaret to another. A portrait of Miles Davis at Montreux in 1991 is alone worth the price of the book.

The Art of Ancient Greek Theater, edited by Mary Louise Hart (Getty Publications, $50). Here, the mask's the thing, if only because the play couldn't go on without it. Actors in Greek comedy and tragedy wore masks, and the pictures of those masks gathered in this book are eerily arresting, making one yearn to see Oedipus Rex performed as it was originally. Of course, there are also wonderful pictures of Grecian urns and some splendid shots of surviving Greek amphitheaters.

Constructing the Ancient World, by Carmelo G. Malacrino (Getty Publications, $50). You may not be up to building an aqueduct or amphitheater anytime soon, but you may well be interested to see how ancient architects built things to last. This book contains some amazingly clear shots of ruins and surprisingly clear illustrations of construction techniques and building materials. History reconstituted.

A New World Imagined: Art of the Americas, by Elliot Bostwick Davis, et al. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, $60). Both American continents, not just the United States, have been melting pots, in art as much as in anything else. This splendid volume, published in connection with the opening of the MFA Boston's new Art of the Americas wing, demonstrates just how much cross-pollination has gone on in the creation of art in the New World. Seeing on facing pages 17th-century Dutch painter Adriaen Brouwer's Peasants Carousing in a Tavern and American John Quidor's Rip Van Winkle and His Companions at the Inn Door of Nicholas Vedder is just one of countless examples making the point. Enriching from cover to cover.

A Museum of One's Own, by Anne Higonnet (Periscope, $49.95). Before there were public museums there were private collections, a good many of which have either become public museums or have been moved to one. Higonnet's copiously illustrated book makes clear that the best collections are themselves works of art. Focus is on Britain's Wallace Collection; the Musée Condé, in Chantilly, France; Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; the Frick Collection; the Huntington Art Gallery, and the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. Filled with insights useful even to those who can collect only on a much more modest scale.

40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, by G.B. Trudeau (Andrews McMeel, $100). If Doonesbury is 40 years old, how come Duke looks the same? How come Duke is still alive? But while much else has changed over the years in the first comic strip to win a Pulitzer, the characters have retained their liberal faith. Which for fans is probably a sustaining nostalgia. Anyway, here's a generous serving of what they've been reading for more than a generation.

Naked: The Nude in America, by Bram Dijkstra (Rizzoli, $75). This one is problematic. The nude is an honored tradition in art; naked is just a state of undress, and author Dijkstra declines to draw any fine distinctions between the two. So there is some wondrous art included here - especially interesting are some works by Elihu Vedder and John Singer Sargent - but also cheesecake pinups and borderline porn. As for the text, though often insightful, it is just as often banal, tendentious, or obtuse. Here's Dijkstra on Benjamin West's Venus Lamenting the Death of Adonis: "The goddess's lamentation over Adonis's death . . . can easily be read as an expression of West's own recognition of the progressive cultural extirpation of the remnants of androgyny as a more aggressive image of manhood began to take center stage." If you say so. Not for the whole family, and best kept someplace other than the coffee table.