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Originally published Saturday, December 18, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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27 beautiful books to grace your coffee table — or someone else's

A list of luscious books to give or keep this holiday season, including new collections of noir; new atlases from Oxford University Press and National Geographic; Nancy Pearl's "Book Lust to Go"; a "Historical Atlas of the North American Railroad" and Jon Stewart's "Earth (The Book)."

Seattle Times book editor

Picking a book for a friend is an exercise in imagination: You think of the book, then you think of the friend, then you imagine looking at the book through your friend's (or loved one's) eyes. For this list of 2010 gift books, I've tried to imagine the best recipient for some very worthy books:

For the photographer/journalist/news junkie

This fall saw the publication of two of the strongest photojournalism collections I've seen in years. "Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties," introduction and biographical essays by Brett Abbott (Getty Publications, $49.95), is based on a popular exhibit at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. It includes some of the best documentary photography of the 20th century — some is not for the faint of heart. Mary Ellen Mark's 1980s portraits of Seattle street kids and Susan Meiselas' photographs of the civil war in Nicaragua are famous, but some lesser known are equally compelling, such as Sebastião Salgado's "depictions of the developing world, manual labor, and populations in distress." James Nachtwey documents the field hospitals of the war in Iraq, as well as the difficult process of recovery from war wounds.

"Decade," edited by Eamonn McCabe, text by Terence McNamee and others (Phaidon, $39.95). This retrospective of photographs from the past decade represents the sacred, the profane, the horrifying and the silly. Its European editors don't flinch from portraying the horrors of war, but it also marks important memories in a decade that started with fears of mass annihilation (remember Y2K?), proceeded to 9/11 and then went by in a blur. Remember Elian Gonzalez? Enron? Abu Ghraib? "Sully" Sullenberger's miracle landing on the Hudson? It's all here. This book won't let you forget.

For the scientist/naturalist

"The World of Trees" by Hugh Johnson (University of California Press, $34.95). Johnson, who usually writes about wine, has outdone himself with this beautiful and well-organized book (500 color illustrations 1,000 line illustrations) of trees, starting with an explanatory section on natural history and life cycles, how trees are named, tree planting and care. Subsequent chapters are devoted to categories of trees ("The Douglas fir," "The Spruces of North America"). This book made me want to run out and buy 500 acres, just to have room to grow some of these specimens.

"The Book of Leaves: A Leaf-by-Leaf Guide to Six Hundred of the World's Great Trees" by Allen J. Coombes (University of Chicago Press, $55) is a splendid and well-organized field guide to trees, using their leaves as the primary mode of identification.

Another spectacular book: "Bark: An Intimate Look at the World's Trees" by Cédric Pollet (Frances Lincoln Publishers, $45). Pollet is a French nature photographer with a singular eye for the colors and patterns in bark: This book focuses on exotic species from around the world, from the stately London plane tree to Africa's socotra dragon tree, which I would not want to meet in a dark alley. Since it grows in Yemen, no worries.

"Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery & the Genius of the Royal Society," edited by Bill Bryson (Morrow, $35). This handsome illustrated volume commemorates the birth and development of Britain's Royal Society with essays from heavy literary hitters: Richard Dawkins, James Gleick, Margaret Atwood and Seattle's own Neal Stephenson, who writes on "Atoms of Cognition: Metaphysics in the Royal Society, 1715-2010." All this to celebrate the 350th anniversary of an organization many credit with ushering science into the modern age.

For the mystery lover

"The Best American Noir of the Century," edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30). A 752-page doorstopper that collects short hard-boiled fiction by master writers of noir, from Patricia Highsmith and Mickey Spillane to Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane. Ellroy, the noirish author of "L.A. Confidential," writes that "The overarching joy and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun." I wish I'd said that.

Also, "The Black Lizard Book of Black Mask Stories," also edited by Penzler (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $25), a survey of crime stories from Black Mask Magazine (1920 to 1951), a magazine billed as "the apotheosis of noir."


For the lover of fine books

Penguin, the international publisher, has reissued 20 classics in hardcover with patterned linen jackets, high-quality paper and those wonderful little ribbons that help you keep your place. Latest editions include "The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint" by William Shakespeare, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" by Arthur Conan Doyle, "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott, "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens and "The Woman in White" by Wilkie Collins. $20 each. For a complete look, plug "penguin hardcover classics" into your search engine.

For the railroad lover

"Historical Atlas of the North American Railroad" by Derek Hayes (University of California Press, $29.95). For the true-blue railroad nut on your list: Hayes, author of several highly regarded historical atlases, tells the story of the development of North American railroads through words, pictures, historical maps and beautiful railroad-based ephemera.

"Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden" (Norton, $65). is a tribute to the steam age of American railroads — spare, beautifully composed photographs that showcase Plowden's printing skills (he was a student of Minor White). Plowden developed an obsession with steam engines in his youth; his photographs of abandoned stations and depots and the brakemen, engineers and station agents who tended them, recall a time when a train ride meant a discovery around every bend.

"Eye of the Explorer: Views of the Northern Pacific Railroad Survey, 1853-1854" by Paul D. McDermott, Ronald E. Grim and Philip Mobley (Mountain Press, $50) tells the story of a 1853-54 railroad-route survey between St. Paul, Minn., and the Northwest conducted by Isaac Stevens (Washington Territory's first governor). The paintings and prints by expedition artists John Mix Stanley and Gustavus Sohon provide a rare glimpse of the Northwest before white men had their way with it. Some sites (such as those along the now-dammed Columbia) have been obliterated; others, such as the eerily beautiful Palouse Falls, haven't changed much.

For the map/history lover

"Mapping America: Exploring the Continent," by Fritz Kessler and Frank Jacobs. (Black Dog Publishing, $45). This collection of historic, demographic, cultural and artistic maps of America veers from the fanciful to the informative and back again, and will force your imagination into some unexplored corners. Consider the map "Active Hate Groups in the United States," or "Internet Map of City-to-City Connections," which somehow made me think of a Ralph Steadman illustration. Dublin-born artist Kathy Prendergast mapped every place in America with the word "lost" in the place name.

"Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade" by David Eltis and David Richardson (Yale University Press, $50). If you think of the slave-trade era as niche history, think again: This volume, full of maps, charts, illustrations, analysis and harrowing first-person accounts, conveys the historical importance and legacy of the slave trade from Africa to North and South America. Any devotee of American or European history will get lost in this book. In these lean times, it would make a lovely gift to a library.

"Atlas of the World" (Oxford University Press, $80) and "National Geographic Atlas of the World" (National Geographic Books, $175). New editions of both these atlases were published this year; the Oxford version is the 17th in a series, the National Geographic the ninth of its kind. Both are wondrous productions, full of maps, satellite imagery, data and infographics that showcase the complexity of our planet. I can't recommend one over another: The Oxford is less expensive, lighter and more compact; the National Geographic Atlas so heavy that just picking it up is an accomplishment. But the United States maps in the National Geographic atlas are more detailed. You will have to go to a bookstore and look for yourself; not one of those decisions you can make with a few clicks.

For the traveler, armchair and otherwise

"Villages of Britain: The Five Hundred Villages that Made the Countryside" by Clive Aslet (Bloomsbury, $65). This delicious narrative tour of British villages showcases the author's familiarity with his topic; Aslet has written and traveled for Britain's "Country Life" magazine for 30 years. He knows his stuff — architecture, history, folklore, literary inspiration. It is great fun just to read the index: Little Eccleston, Little Giddin, Little Melton, Little Snoring, Little Steeping. Mostly print, with few illustrations, but Aslet is so entertaining you won't miss them.

"Encyclopedia of New York City," edited by Kenneth T. Jackson (Yale University Press, $65). Why would you want an encyclopedia of NYC when you don't live there? Because of the city's dominant position in world culture, literature and economics — I'm keeping this handy the next time I read a Richard Price novel. In its second edition, this one-volume reference covers the history, neighborhoods, personalities, businesses and more of the Big Apple. The first edition was published 15 years ago, and a lot has happened since then (such as 9/11). Jackson is the Jacques Barzun professor of history at Columbia University.

"Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds and Dreamers" by Nancy Pearl (Sasquatch, $16.95). What to read before you go; Pearl's latest suggests fiction and nonfiction books for 120 destinations. Equally informative if you prefer to do your traveling in your armchair.

For the smart aleck

"Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race" by the Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Grand Central Publishing, $27.99). What can you say about a book that's written by a television show? If it's Jon Stewart's show, you can say that this attempt to explain life on Earth to an alien readership (a sort of last will and testament; humans have fled the scene) is pure, pointed fun.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or

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