Need a solid, thoughtful gift idea that's cheaper than a coffee table but easier to read than a real book?
Solution: a coffee-table book. It has the weighty impracticality needed to look both attentive and, you know, not cheap. Coffee-table books can be browsed through, snuggled up with, immersed in, oohed and ahhed over and, best of all, talked about without anyone actually having to read them.
Here's a random guide to satisfy many tastes —- from high to low to shelves in between.
> "The Elvis Encyclopedia," by Adam Victor; Overlook Duckworth; $65
What every Presley fan has been waiting for: Elvis from A (as in Agnew, with an entry of Elvis meeting with the vice president in Palm Springs, Calif., in late 1970) to Z (as in David Zenoff, with a mention of the Nevada Supreme Court judge who married Elvis and Priscilla in Las Vegas in May 1968). Author of "The Marilyn Encyclopedia," Victor deftly embeds each compact entry in this 598-page tome with the most essential, often myth-busting nuggets. The more than 500 knockout photos are worth the crazy price alone.
> "World Architecture: The Masterworks," by Will Pryce; Thames & Hudson; $80
The book jacket photograph —- a stunningly simple detail shot of the Taj Mahal —- will instantly make your coffee table the most looked-at piece of furniture in your house. Informative enough, wide-ranging enough, this beautifully produced album only needs its 350 day-dreamy photos to make it worth opening again and again.
> "The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages, 1851-2008," introduction by Bill Keller; Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers; $60
Newspapers might be on life-support, but as Barack Obama's recent election victory proved, the front page is not. It remains the national go-to artifact of a major event. And while The New York Times front page lacks the mirth-making capability of, say, "Headless Body in Topless Bar," it is a this-just-in record of our collective lives. Leavened with summary essays about each era, the book comes with three DVDs that contain 54,267 front pages. Read all about it!
> "Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways," by Richard Carlin; Collins; $35
Moses Asch founded the Folkways Records & Service Co. out of a tiny New York studio in 1948 with one mission: Create an "encyclopedia of sound" that essentially recorded every noise people might care about. This ranged from folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, to the read-aloud poems of Langston Hughes, to the chatterings of bottle-nose dolphins. Sprinkled with archival photos, contracts, concert posters and other musical Americana, "Worlds of Sound" is a trek to the Smithsonian for anyone who can't actually make it.
> "Lana: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies," by Cheryl Crane; Running Press; $35
Try to put down a book in which the author, the daughter of iconic bombshell Lana Turner, writes of the circumstances surrounding the actress' infamous 1958 scandal. "There is no gentle way to put it: at the age of fourteen, I stabbed and killed John Stompanato, my mother's boyfriend, during an episode of physical abuse." Thoroughly assembled and nicely paced, this homey homage is just unintentionally kitschy enough to enthrall like a newly discovered family scrapbook. For film buffs, celebrity disciples and female impersonators everywhere.
> "Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2009: 850 Trends, Destinations, Journeys & Experiences for the Year Ahead"; Lonely Planet; $22.99
For those who like to strike out on their own rather than follow the herd —- who view travel as equal parts art and adventure —- this guide's for you. Practical and offbeat, far-flung and hyper-local, this hits the conversation-starter-book jackpot. Use it to plan the best vacation of your life, or just indulge your fantasies by paging through it like high-gloss journey porn.
> "Show Me How: 500 Things You Should Know," by Derek Fagerstrom, Lauren Smith and The Show Me Team; Collins/Design; $24.95
Ever wonder how to pit an avocado? Open a beer with a lighter? Fake an exposed bone? From the sublime (how to serve and pair a pinot grigio) to the ridiculous (how to get out of a car in a miniskirt —- listen up, Britney!), the appeal of this how-to compendium is derived less from its utility than its almost poetic recognition of the everyday and never-thought-of. Seemingly designed for parlor grins (how to sneak your arm around a date), it can also pose as an emergency manual. Need to know how to deliver a baby in a taxi? Toss your driver a copy and yell, "Page 344!" Good luck with that.
> "501 Great Writers"; Barrons; $29.99
From Thomas de Quincey to Don DeLillo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau to J.K. Rowling, this guide to the giants —- both well-known and long forgotten —- is less patronizing than a "Lit for Dummies" and more accessible than an anthology. Page-long entries mingle literary and personal biography to shed new light onto writers you know, and provide revelation about those you don't. Pull quotes make it un-put-downable through 640 pages. Faulkner: "I'm trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period." Joyce Carol Oates: "Love commingled with hate is more powerful than love. Or hate."
> "Art: Over 2,500 Works From Cave to Contemporary," forward by Ross King; DK Publishing; $50
Like a hardcover power-point presentation, what this encyclopedic survey lacks in sexiness it makes up for in sheer, illustrated info. It smartly deconstructs art in general before moving on to appraising movements and artists through the millennia. The book can serve as both primer and review.
> "Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan"; Pantheon Books; $29.95
For the comic book geek who has everything. The original Japanese stories of Batman and Robin from 1967 and 1968, written and drawn by manga master Jiro Kuwata, are collected and translated. Included throughout: full-page glossy photos of the toy guns, rockets and Batmobiles that accompanied the comics. Holy geek heaven!
> "Breakdown: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," by Art Spiegelman; Pantheon Books; $27.50
For the %@&*! who has everything. Seminal out-of-print work from the 1970s underground comics icon Art Spiegelman, who earned a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel "Maus." The book's introduction —- told graphically, of course, and almost half as long as the book itself —- gives insight into Spiegelman's early influences, including his mother's suicide. Dark, devastating, don't-miss-it stuff.
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