Lavish gifts and brilliant reads bring the world to your fingertips—with or without a computer
By Michael S. Gant
DESPITE THE RUSH to cell-phone and iPod downloads as the art form of the 21st century (Look!—Sayid and Jack from Lost on a 2-by-1-inch screen!), I cling to the primacy of print as the best of all possible holiday gifts. Not only do you give something of substance with plenty of shelf life, but you can also support your local independent bookseller in the process.
That said, my recommendation for the gift book of the year actually comes in the form of eight DVDs bound in book form. The Complete New Yorker (Random House) is a supreme record of the best damn magazine ever and a watershed publishing event.
This convenient package, about the size and weight of the Santa Cruz County phone book, contains a photocopy of every page of every issue from Feb. 21, 1925, to Feb. 14, 2005 (with updates available yearly). That's more than 4,000 issues, with every cover, every ad, every cartoon and every article visible at the click of a mouse.
The articles are extensively indexed, a real godsend, since the magazine disdained a table of contents for most of its existence. You can browse through the years, cover by gemlike cover, dipping into the zeitgeist of the flapper era, the Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, etc., as your fancy takes you. Or you can search for favorite authors and trace their critical growth—Pauline Kael's movie reviews, beginning in January 1968, a signal date in film criticism; John Updike's book notes; James Thurber's humor pieces.
Many of the best stories have been anthologized elsewhere, but this collection offers a unique opportunity to pick up even the most casual pieces. A good example is Joseph Mitchell, whose most famous nonfiction tales got turned into the movie Joe Gould's Secret, but who remains something of an unsung genius of 20th-century journalism. Starting with his first Reporter at Large article in 1933, a still-amusing account of a marriage mill in Elkton, Md., Mitchell broke from the magazine's overly breezy, brittle early prose and pioneered its modern style, full of hard-worn details, flashes of insight and brilliantly rendered dialogue.
At $100 retail (and frequently discounted), this handy gateway to an invaluable record of 20th-century thought, culture and commerce (the ads alone constitute a social history of the last 80 years) supplement the bulky bound volumes and unwieldy microfilm reels in libraries with an affordable home reference. With luck and commitment, other publications will follow suit: imagine having all 50 years of the Village Voice or H.L. Mencken's American Mercury at your beck and call.
For the Paint of Heart
The holidays also justify the existence of thick, glossy-papered art books—books that you might feel guilty about buying for yourself, but if they're gifts ...
While we're busy remaking the Middle East, it might not be a bad idea to think about how deeply rooted the institutions there really are. Forgotten Empire, edited by John E. Curtis and Nigel Tallis (UC Press; $49.95), charts in a multitude of color photographs the art of the Achaeminid Empire of ancient Persia, which reached its architectural peak at Persepolis and occupied all of modern Iran, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt and beyond from about 550 to 330 B.C.E.
As noted in one of the scholarly but accessible essays, the Persian empire contributed as much to our modern notions of democracy as the Athenian Greeks (who have always gotten better press in the West). The Persians, for example, were "able to accommodate existing political habit without the need to enforce change" throughout their far-flung provinces.
The meatiest art book of the season, New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century by Jed Perl (Knopf; $35), skimps on the pictures (all in black and white, which makes it hard to appreciate the color-field painters). But Perl, art critic for the New Republic, fills his pages with provocative prose explaining the grand sweep of post-World War II art—from Abstract Expressionism to Pop—as the product of both the wealth and the creative ferment of New York, the only world metropolis not ruined by the war.
Perl is especially good at analyzing the less-well-known artists (Fairfield Porter and Donald Judd especially) of the Silver Age that followed the sturm und drang of de Kooning and Pollock. Among the many surprises is that actor Robert De Niro's father was a major figure in the New York art scene in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.
Judging the Past
In 1913, Teddy Roosevelt, after losing his third-party presidential bid, took off to the Amazon for an expedition down the uncharted River of Doubt, 1,000 miles of boiling rapids full of piranha, flowing through a dense jungle buzzing with disease-carrying insects. (Would George W. Bush do that?)
The entire harrowing story is related with great felicity in Candice Millard's River of Doubt (Doubleday; $26). On this believe-it-or-not journey, the ex-president soldiered on despite a near-fatal infection to his injured leg, while his monomaniacal son Kermit vowed to bring the grand old man out alive. The expedition's co-leader, Brazilian Candido Mariano, is just as fascinating—against considerable odds, he ordered his men to die rather than fire upon a native Amazonian.
On another continent, about 20 years earlier, Henry Stanley, the man who presumed to discover Livingstone, embarked on an equally crazed journey. As described in The Last Expedition: Stanley's Mad Journey Through the Congo (W.W. Norton; $25.95 cloth), the famed explorer's misbegotten trek through the Congo to rescue one Emin Pasha, a German Jew who had converted to Islam and ended up running the province of Equatoria for the English, was the height of colonialist folly. In their brisk version of this deadly farce, Daniel Liebowitz and Charles Pearson skewer Stanley as an egomaniac who left doomed officers and African bearers in his wake as he waded through malarial forests. If it sounds like Heart of Darkness, it's with good reason. Some literary scholars believe that Stanley's antics ended up as fodder for Joseph Conrad's novel.
Armchair travelers can immerse themselves in remote realms in two extraordinary books about urban extremities. Turkish author Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City (Knopf; $26.95) views the famed capital of West and East (as Constantinople, heir to Rome, before the Ottoman invasion of 1453) through a lens of poetry and nostalgia, prizing out the fabled city's thick fog of melancholy and regret at the glories of past empires.
Suketu Mehta's Maximum City (Vintage; $16 paper) exposes the roiling contradictions of the Indian megalopolis Bombay (a.k.a. Mumbai). Mehta's forays into the underworld of gangsters, cross-dressing pole dancers and Bollywood filmmakers are fearless and fascinating.
Add to this something much closer to home: The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture, by John Leighton Chase (The Museum of Art and History; $19.95 paper). This compendious guide explores the private and municipal building styles of our burg, street by street, with an eye to both history and structural details. (Full disclosure: Many years ago, I worked on the first edition, but I have no contact with the creators of the third edition, so I can recommend it without reservation.)
Finally, no holiday season would be complete without a Bush-bashing book (and I'm guessing there will be a glut). I like Pat Bagley's Clueless George Goes to War! (White Horse Books; $7.95 paper; www.CluelessGeorgeGoesToWar.com). Using the familiar images from the CuriousGeorge kids' books, Bagley pokes merciless fun at our "war-monkey president." Suitable for voters of all ages.