The essential note of a gift book is that it is not only worth reading, but also worth looking at.
No grand catalogue raisonné manifested itself this year, but a number of more modest - and less costly - volumes have appeared that easily meet the necessary criteria. So what follows is a baker's dozen of comely books, ranging from a spectacular printed bouquet to a cheerful look at a parodist who has grown prosperous by being "weird," and including a prose master's informed and informative take on art, a peek at what happens when artists grow intimate, a close-up of a famous photographer, a photo ride along a grand highway, and a good deal more besides.
As always, prices are list, but in most cases discounts are readily available.
Flower (Chronicle Books, $75). Talk about letting images speak for themselves! There is almost no text in this book. There aren't even any page numbers. It's just one ravishing blossom after another. This has the advantage of forcing you to see each flower purely and simply, by itself and for itself. The disadvantage is having to go to the back of the book and match the image on the page with the image in the index (that golden ball of petals taking up two pages about a quarter of the way in is a shrub rose named Rosa Charlotte). Final verdict: Beauty trumps convenience.
The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (Random House, $55). Judging by the number of dogs on the sidewalk these days, it looks as if man's best friend may have graduated to being his only friend. The New Yorker was onto dogs from the start, as this compendium of cartoons, poems, fiction, and nonfiction clearly attests. James Thurber stars from first to last, but A.J. Liebling's account of a coondog field trial in Connecticut and Calvin Tompkins' "The American Dog in Crisis" ("It must be clear to all that there is cause for concern in the modern dog's rudderless, uprooted circumstances") are just two of many rivals for best in show.
Drawn From Paradise (Harper Design, $45). When a spectacularly plumed bird first came to the attention of Europeans in the 16th century, it was immediately identified with paradise. There are actually more than 40 species of birds of paradise - often as not named for royalty - and their beauty made them favorites of artists from the start. David Attenborough and Errol Fuller do the birds justice with a book that is itself extraordinarily lovely from beginning to end.
Artists in Love (Welcome Books, $65). The course of true love never did run smooth. Shakespeare's observation probably goes double when the lovers are artists. Here is a gathering of turbulent romance and creative synergy. Some of the couples - Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera - are well-known. Some are less so - Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter, for example. And probably not many people know that Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were a couple for a while. Obviously, what is most interesting is seeing the couples' work side by side.
Always Looking (Knopf, $45). Few people have written as elegantly and perceptively about art as John Updike. This posthumous collection ranges from the epic landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church ("his passionate cloudscapes . . . speak of beauty that is evanescent . . . and of the helpless act of witness which the painter wordlessly achieves") to the dubious triumph of Richard Serra ("All this steel devoted to scrambling our habitual perceptions? Wouldn't the funhouse or Ferris wheel at the country fair do just as well?") An art book with an artful text to match.
Fish in Art (Reaktion Books, $30). Birds seem a natural subject for art and artist. But fish? Well, the Egyptians were painting the water denizens 4,000 years ago, and Gustave Courbet did a fine portrait of a trout in 1872. Many of our finny friends have plaintive faces and others - think koi - are spectacularly colored. What astounds is the variety of the representations. And how many art books are going to affect your menu choices?
The Art of Tony Auth (Camino Books, $19.95). Maybe not the perfect gift for your conservative friends, but surely the perfect one to have lying about if you want to get the conversational ball rolling. Are the cartoons fair and balanced? Of course not. What fun would that be?
City of Gold (Princeton University Art Museum/Yale University Press, $55). The modern Cypriot town of Polis Chrysochous is built on the ruins of two earlier cities, the city-kingdom of Marion, which dates to the first millennium B.C., and the city of Arsinoe, founded by Ptolemy II after his predecessor Ptolemy I had razed Marion and deported its inhabitants in 312 B.C. Haunting faces, often only fragments, and exquisite jewelry bring this lost world uncannily to life. This is the catalog of an exhibition celebrating more than two decades of Princeton-led excavations. The exhibition continues until Jan. 20.
Weird Al (Abrams Image, $29.95). So what if there's a Led Zeppelin book out, or a collection of John Lennon's letters? They're all so yesterday. When it comes to hip, Alfred Matthew Yankovic of Lynwood, Calif., remains as outré as ever. Also, the book is funny - and insightful: "I think televised golf would be more fun to watch if they had color commentary by that Hindenburg announcer guy."
Almost Heaven (Blurb, $61.95 - available online at http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/3242536). The Lincoln Highway, which turns 100 next year, was the first coast-to-coast road for automobiles in the United States. It starts in Times Square in New York and ends in San Francisco's Lincoln Park. If you've ever driven across the country, this book, by former Inquirer photographer Eric Mencher and his wife, Kass, is for you, filled with perfectly framed shots that call to mind and heart what it's actually like as you drive up to that luncheonette in some town you never heard of in Nebraska.
Looking at Ansel Adams (Little, Brown, $44). Collections of Ansel Adams' photos are becoming a holiday staple, but this one is a little different, focusing on just 20 of his photographs and using them to illuminate the life and character of a man who, though married for 50 years and the father of two children, was private to the point of loneliness.
Weatherbeaten (Portland Museum of Art/Yale University Press, $37.50). Winslow Homer is well-known for his paintings of Maine (notably Undertow and Eight Bells), but didn't move to the state until 1883. The carriage house that he remodeled into a home and studio has been restored and this is the catalog of an exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art. Homer was one of this country's greatest artists and this is a wonderful collection of his work.
Regarding Warhol (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, $60). Regardless of how you may regard Andy Warhol and his art, the fact remains that Warhol has exerted an immense influence on contemporary art. That influence is on display in this book, the catalog of an exhibition currently at New York's Metropolitan Museum. The highlight really is the interviews with the other artists included in the exhibition, among them Chuck Close, Julian Schnabel, and Jeff Koons.