Season's Readings

There was an e-mail going around not long ago about the perfect technology. The device was portable and lightweight, never needed batteries and would last forever without being charged. Best of all, it engaged intellect, emotions and creativity in a way almost nothing else did, offering each user a slightly different experience depending on how it was used. This ideal medium, the message went on to disclose, is none other than the book. Well, we agree, and for those reasons and more we also think it makes the perfect gift. Here are some of our picks for the holiday season. Happy giving. 


For the fiction fan
A Mercy
by Toni Morrison ($24, Knopf)
The new novel by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison is being called a prelude of sorts to her masterpiece Beloved. Set at the close of the 17th century, when the slave trade was still in its infancy, A Mercy follows the life of a young slave from Maryland who has been traded as payment of debt to a northern farmer. Like Beloved, the novel explores racism, abandonment, mother-daughter relationships and the nature of enduring love. Publisher’s Weekly writes, “Morrison’s unflinching narrative is all the more powerful for its relative brevity; it takes hold of the reader and doesn’t let go until the wrenching final-page crescendo.”

For the chef
by Grant Achatz ($50, Ten Speed)
It’s a cookbook, yes. But the gorgeous new book from James Beard award–winning chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea is as much about beauty and the appreciation of food as it is a guide for preparing one of Alinea’s spectacular menus. It includes stunning photography (every single finished dish is featured in the book) and thoughtful, engaging essays by Achatz and other food literati such as Jeffrey Steingarten. Ambitious home cooks are definitely encouraged to try the recipes (there is even a companion website for exchange of ideas and support from fellow cooks), but like design books and fashion magazines, this is more about aspiration and inspiration than mixing bowls and teaspoons.

For the gamer
Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts
by Rob Smith ($60, Chronicle Books)
George Lucas was at the forefront of the fledgling video game industry 25 years ago when he started LucasArts as a way of integrating various entertainment media. Rogue Leaders chronicles LucasArts’ journey to becoming one of the most prestigious designers in the industry, with dozens of never-before-published interviews. But the really cool feature: 300 pieces of concept art, character sketches, and storyboards that illustrate how some of the most-loved games have come to life.

For the science buff
The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies
by Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson ($55, W. W. Norton)
Bees have a lot to tell us. So do ants. This book, which promises to be a biggie in scientific importance, illuminates the many captivating elements of superorganisms—tightly knit colonies of individuals formed by altruistic cooperation, complex communication and division of labor (think beehives and termite nests). With more than 200 photographs and illustrations, Superorganisms is a fascinating look into a word hitherto glimpsed only by a few scientists. 

For the armchair social scientist
The Outliers: The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell
($28, Little, Brown & Co.)
The New Yorker writer and best-selling author does for success in The Outliers what he did for trends and cultural phenomena in The Tipping Point. Here Gladwell studies successful people—software billionaires, famous athletes and others—arguing that we pay too much attention to what they are like and not enough attention to the homes, backgrounds, cultures, families and generations they come from.

For the art-seeker
X-Ray: See Through the World Around You
by Nick Veasey ($40, Studio)
There is something subversive about photographer Nick Veasey’s X-ray images. They are often beautiful and always fascinating to look at, but they also turn our current obsession with security on its head by using sophisticated X-ray technology to show the inner beauty of objects rather than their hidden dangers. Working from a lead-lined room (he also claims to wear lead underwear), he creates inside-out images of everyday objects, plants and animals—from a Boeing 777 to a daffodil. 

For the fact finder
The Encyclopedia of Earth: A Complete Visual Guide
by Michael Allaby, Robert Coenraads, Stephen Hutchinson, Karen McGhee, John O’Byrne and Ken Rubin ($40, UC Press)
It starts with the beginning of the universe and ends with today’s conservation issues. In between are 600 beautiful, colorful pages on everything from the geology of Central Australia to the organization of rural communities across the globe. It’s one of those books you can open to any page and find some completely compelling fact, photo, explanation or story. Authored by a group of true experts (they’re are all highly regarded scientists) who can write beautifully for the lay audience, The Encyclopedia of Earth is like flipping through National Geographic, Life and Nature all at once. 

For the really big book lover
The Hour I First Believed
by Wally Lamb ($30, Harper)
The New York Times once called Wally Lamb, author of best sellers She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, “a modern-day Dostoevsky” for his ability to weave long, engaging stories of people struggling with a “mocking, sadistic God.” His new novel takes as its starting point the Columbine High School killings in Littleton, Colorado, where Lamb’s character Maureen Quirk is the school nurse and a witness to the terrible violence. Unable to recover from the trauma, she moves with her husband to his family’s ancestral home in Connecticut, where he discovers a cache of old papers, diaries and photos chronicling his family from the Civil War through his own childhood. From these bits and various voices Lamb tells an intricate American story that is both timeless and contemporary.