Coffee table books are rarely about coffee tables. But they do make impressive gifts, fine conversation starters and, of course, hefty projectiles. What's more, publishers have recently benefitted from demographic research into the optimal ratio of big colorful picture to pithy adequate text, which has been determined to fall precisely between a Victoria's Secret catalogue and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.
To help you find that literary sweet spot and to prevent your giftees from the awkward experience of opening The Big Book of Regional Marsupials in front of you we offer the following mini-guide to maxi-books, all of them published within the last couple months. Please note that in the following descriptions, "pounds" refer to the book's weight, not its cost in the U.K.
By Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon
Grand Central Publishing, $45, 384 pages, 4.8 pounds
Bright pink and surprisingly substantial, this picturesque official aka Clash-sanctioned oral history doesn't skimp on insights or details about "the only band that matters." (Though "mattered" might be more appropriate at this point.) Whether or not Joe Strummer is rolling in his grave at the idea of his revolutionary band spawning a coffee table book, you can still count on the fact that your ex-punk recipient will be rifling through the pages of this handsome cultural artifact.
The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages: 1851-2008
The New York Times
Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, $60, 456 pages, 8.2 pounds
OK, they'd be pretty tiny reproductions if all 54,266 front pages were printed here, so the editors have included 3 DVDs to handle the complete set; the book itself cherry-picks some 300 of the more significant ones. Also included are 10 full-size foldout covers and 17 essays by the likes of Frank Rich and William Safire, the latter on "The End of Slavery." I actually had no idea Bill was that old, but it does explain a thing or two ...
Watching the Watchmen
Dave Gibbons et al (as in nobody famous)
Titan Books, $39.95, 256 pages, 4 pounds
If any comic book can be called a masterpiece, it would have to be Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' late '80s Watchmen series, a timely and even prophetic epic that happens to include superheroes. The movie, due next March, will most likely suck, if the film adaptation of Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is any indicator. Happily, this versatile doorstop is about the making of the book series, not the movie. It's largely geared to trainspotters, but Watchmen has clearly created enough of them to make it viable.
Louvre: 400 Masterpieces
Abrams, $40, 544 pages, 4.4 pounds
Show of hands: Who among us can look at the Venus de Milo without thinking of the chorus to the song of the same name by the New York band Television ("I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo")? Just as I thought! Anyway, art lovers are almost certain to get off on this blockbuster. Sure, there's the Mona Lisa and the usual Euro-suspects, but you'll also find Egyptian, Etruscan, Near Eastern and Islamic works, along with an introductory essay by Louvre director Henri Loyrette. (Wait, wasn't he the guy that got killed in The Da Vinci Code?)
Simon & Schuster, $35, 408 pages, 2.2 pounds
Let's see. Typical Paul Simon lyric: "I don't know a soul who's not been battered / I don't have a friend who feels at ease / I don't know a dream that's not been shattered / or driven to its knees / But it's all right, it's all right / For we've lived so well so long ..." Typical lyric from Simon's wife, Edie Brickell: "What I am is what I am / Are you what you are or what?" Typical Popeye lyric: "I yam what I yam, and that's all I yam." Looks like Simon & Schuster made the right choice.