Gifting a book is personal.
It tells me about you, and tells me what you think about me. I suppose any gift could do this. But give me a Colleen Hoover bestseller with its 40%-off sticker attached and it still speaks louder than a new sweater. What follows are some very specific messages to send this holiday season, coupled with exactly the right books. There are rules to this: A proper gift book is a great read and a pleasing package. Design matters. Unless it’s a set of books with a theme — but even then, titles must complement, not replicate.
That said, just remove the 40%-off sticker.
There are some good Chicago books this holiday — Blair Kamin and Lee Bey on Chicago architecture, Neil Steinberg on local history. (You can find more details in our fall book preview.) But how about that cinderblock-thick new edition of the “AIA Guide to Chicago” ($43)? A nearly block-by-block walking tour of this crazily large city, more visually friendly than previous editions, reflecting a decade of change: the 606, the Riverwalk, etc. “Nick Cave: Forothermore” ($50) is the catalog from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s recent show, and the closest we have to a survey of a Chicago artist too busy for a true retrospective. “Hebru Brantley” ($55) is the first book dedicated to the Chicago pop artist and his aviator goggle-wearing kids you’ve seen all over the city. As a monograph, it’s half studio tour, half branding, and pretty charming. My favorite, though, is a slender pamphlet from cartoonist John Porcellino, “The Collected Prairie Pothole” ($6). Melancholic memories of seeing Sinatra at the Civic Opera House and buying records in Irving Park. It ran briefly in the Chicago Reader and is sweetly nostalgic this time of year.
As iffy as I was on the necessity of Jerry Seinfeld’s “The Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee Book” coffee table book ($35) — a transcript of comics in conversation is weak tea, compared with the music of their voices — I’ve had trouble putting it down. It is what it is: photos of Jerry’s cars, bits of philosophy. Yet, toilet-reading perfection: George Wallace wondering why 42,000 people already at Wrigley Field need to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Eddie Murphy on sitting still … Wise dialogue makes compulsive reading. The New Yorker staff writer D.T. Max understands. “Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim” ($20) is his relaxed portrait of the great composer through a series of hit-and-miss stabs at interviews, some breezy, some unconformable. Their relationship softens, stalls; you know Max is getting somewhere when Sondheim, at the end of his life and their conversations, blurts: “I do not want to be looked at. End of it!”
Can’t go wrong with a new edition of a classic. Just skip the obvious — Jane Austen and co. Think British publisher Folio’s keepsake of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” ($65), illustrated by Nigerian-Italian artist Diana Ejaita in the silhouetted cutouts and pastels of folk art. (No less than Zadie Smith provides the introduction.) Also by Folio: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet” ($110), which collects his first 12 issues into hardcover, with an introduction by Walter Mosley.
Or think Modern Library’s new translation of “The Betrothed” ($29) by Alessandro Manzoni, a literary staple of Italy. For an 1842 novel about Italian life in the 1600s, it’s startlingly accessible. That churn of history is felt in every page of Library of America’s “Don DeLillo: Three Novels of the 1980s” ($45), which gathers his breakthrough novel “The Names,” his disaster classic “White Noise” and the JFK-conspiracy fable “Libra” into an elegant, austere package. Octavia Butler, like DeLillo, had a knack for revealing how the belittled shards of genre might transcend assumptions: “Bloodchild, and Other Stories” ($23), her collection of aliens, oppression and religion, gets an introduction by Jesmyn Ward and a hardcover.
“Illuminations” ($30), the first story collection by Alan Moore, whose “Watchmen” is arguably the most influential comic book ever, includes a great ghost story, an homage to the Beats, and with “What We Can Know About Thunderman,” classic hand-biting, a sardonic pocket history of comic creators. Exactly the types at the obsessive center of “See You in San Diego” ($40), a wordy, loving oral history of comic cons. That said, “Nerd: Adventures in Fandom From This Universe to the Multiverse” ($27), by New York Times cultural critic Maya Phillips, conducts similar autopsies of fandom, but with memoiristic intimacy, and in a third the space. No subject here — Neil Gaiman, X-Men, “Sailor Moon” — is too slight a window into contemporary anxiety, religion, race and gender. Perfect for the day after you’re still processing an entire season of “Andor.”
Three international scenes, three surveys: “African Art Now” ($55) offers a crash course on the painful, watchful and funny contemporary artists making Africa a new art world hub, reclaiming history, sexuality and ordinary existence. “Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s-Today” ($65) is the scholarly catalog for the just-opened MCA Chicago exhibit that aims to redefine how contemporary Caribbean work considers home and identity. “The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art” ($75) covers the fascinating reply by Korean artists to Japanese colonization, then the Korean War. It traces the introduction of photography and sculpture, and hints at the decades to come.
One nice thing about gifting short books is they’re cheaper, but also, the right bundle of finely sharpened narratives can be like gifting a few brief vacations. You can’t go wrong with Irish novelist Claire Keegan, whose moving but unsentimental stories (finally published in this country) landed with outsized impact last year. “Small Things Like These” ($20) is a Christmas tale about complicity and bravery; “Foster” ($20), newly arrived, is a coming-of-age heartbreaker carrying the heft of mythology. Keegan writes as ambitiously as authors who stretch past 600 pages, yet both of these, together, are about 200 pages. For more inspiration, hit Kenneth Davis’ “Great Short Books” ($28), a casual, cheerful browsing through 58 short books that leave you feeling better read.
Beware Valancourt’s delightful Paperbacks From Hell series! As in, wait for the right snowed-in Chicago night. Inspired by horror novelist Grady Hendrix’s “Paperbacks From Hell” coffee table history of lurid ‘70s-’80s horror pulp, each book ($18 a title) is a reissue of beloved junk that was often much savvier than expected. A few favorites: the giant Cape Cod cockroaches of “The Nest,” the Bigfoot hunter of “The Spirit” and “The Auctioneer,” Joan Samson’s ‘70s cult favorite about a town driven mad by a stranger.
As rich as the history of comics is in Chicago — the birthplace of many a household name — “Winsor McCay: The Complete Little Nemo” ($80) documents the peak of early newspaper funnies. Though he started here, McCay created Little Nemo, his masterpiece, a decade later.
But this ginormous collection of its full 549-strip run suggests just how much Chicago architecture influenced its tall, crowded panels. Similarly, “The Joy of Quitting” ($25), as eerily beautiful as mundanity gets, nails the silence and wide lawns of cartoonist Keiler Roberts’ Evanston. Neither here nor there, “Who Will Make the Pancakes” ($30) finds Megan Kelso meshing the rounded heads and dotted eyes of Sunday strips to stories of ordinary parents and childhood resilience. Speaking of influential: Art Spiegelman’s “Breakdowns” ($25) is a lush reprint of his breakthrough 1978 anthology (which included a bit of his classic-in-the-making, “Maus”).
It’s hard to gift inspiration. But if they don’t feel pumped after flipping through “Aram Han Sifuentes: We Are Never Never Other” ($30), a lively study of the Chicago-based maker of social justice textiles and founder of the ingenious Protest Banner Lending Library — well, you tried. More how-to: “Hervé Tullet’s Art of Play: Images and Inspirations From a Life of Radical Creativity” ($40), a retrospective of the acclaimed children’s book author doubling as practical art prompts. Still feeling meh? “How to Live With Objects” ($60) shows creativity begins at home. A big book of idiosyncratic interiors, it shakes off uniformity for the oddball lamps and bizarro bowls we accumulate. Thrifting tips get mixed with a true love for stuff you’ll never part with.
A smart book of photos grows old in an appreciative home. A few excellent new suggestions: That long beloved doorstop “The Fashion Book” ($60) gets an update. The format — 500 pages of designers and icons, paired to bios — is unchanged, now with room for Chicago’s Virgil Abloh and streetwear like Supreme. “Joan Didion: What She Means” ($40) is the catalog of a new Los Angeles exhibit that pairs the influence and criticism of the late journalist with painting, sculpture and video that reflects on her relationship to the coasts.
There’s lots of capitalizing on the death of Queen Elizabeth II but “Her Majesty” ($70) from Taschen feels as definitive and graceful as you’d hope. I could care less for royalty, yet I couldn’t stop flipping around what is part survey of great images, part bio. The Queen played tag. The proof is here. “Carrie Mae Weems: A Great Turn in the Possible” ($75) is the way overdue retrospective of the celebrated photographer (and more), known for her images of domestic life, class and joy among Black Americans. Particularly valuable: Weems, always cogent of who is crafting the narrative of an artist’s meaning, slips in her own visual essay about her influential work.
Receiving a set of the annual, venerable Best American series ($18 a title) — now 107 years old — has long been the alternate family newsletter you actually want. Every New Yorker piece you missed, every Atlantic profile you skipped, now for posterity. The series shed titles recently: There’s no longer Best American Sports Writing or Travel Writing. But the vibrant randomness here still provides a surprising peek into a familiar world. Terrific essays on the lunchboxes of immigrants (Best Food) and floating homes (Best Science and Nature) — as well as a Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy collection that now holds its own against Best American Short Stories — point toward a rich future.
Original thought has a steep price. For the Samuel Adams of “The Revolutionary” ($35), Stacy Schiff’s rowdy biography of that caustic founding father, it’s being elbowed out of our image of our nation’s birth. One of our most entertaining historians, Schiff profiles a colony as it grows fixated on how “ignorance shaded into condescension” among the British, and Adams pushed their bitterness into violent unrest. For the 18th-century Germans of Andrea Wulf’s spirited collective biography, “Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self” ($35), it’s the personal struggle of Hegel, Goethe and other playwrights and poets to live up to a self-determination that would flourish much later, among Thoreau and others. If your brain still has room: “Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master: Pong, Atari and the Dawn of the Video Game” ($17) gives a spare, clever graphic-novel treatment to those early programmers who dared to argue that the personal computer might also be a lot of fun.
The purpose of “Great Women Painters” ($70) is not to divide a medium into genders but, with 300 painters spanning 60 countries and 500 years, to subversively and quietly floor you with a phone book of talent largely still unknown. You know Mary Cassatt, but what of her contemporary, Marie Gabrielle Capet, Janet Sobel’s pre-Pollock drip paintings, startling Cuban minimalism… Speaking of unsung: “The Portraitist: Frans Hals and His World” ($35), despite almost no paper trail, squeezes out a fascinating history of the 15th-century Dutch master who never got the same press as his contemporaries, Vermeer and Rembrandt.
Climate change isn’t the theme, but there’s urgency here to appreciate the natural world. “Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors” ($25) is the most overdue: a charming survey of people of color pushing environmental stewardship, raising bees, living among redwoods, sustainably hunting. A beautiful companion: “How to Read the Wilderness” ($35). Come for vintage illustrations culled from 60 years of pocket guides by the Nature Study Guild, stay for the practical advice on coyote tracks.
For the committed: “Living in the Forest” ($50) is an architectural thirst trap of homes designed to blend into Icelandic meadows, Chinese pine woods … My favorite: “Ocean” ($65), Phaidon’s latest doorstop of art and nature, a wildly random mixtape of marine images, from the iconic “Jaws” poster to 18th-century maps of the Indian Ocean. Hard to put down. As is “Remote Experiences” ($60), respectful portraits of 12 trips, from small town Papua New Guinea to woodsy camps in the Andes.
Start small. “The Keeper” ($25), by horror novelist Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes, is a graphic novel with echoes of Jordan Peele (who blurbs the back cover). An orphaned girl moves to Detroit to live with her grandmother who, fearing her own death, creates a spirit to watch them. It’s a tale of generational angst, and yes, also plays like an inevitable movie. “The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror: Ominous Omnibus Vol. 1, Scary Tales and Scarier Tentacles” ($40), much less serious, but just as smartly crafted, is 400 winking, colorful pages of Simpsons comics, some drawn by Chicago’s Jeffrey Brown and Jill Thompson, some written by Mark Hamill and Patton Oswalt.
Baseball is no longer our national pastime, but it still lands the best writing of any sport: “The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham” ($30), by writer-director Ron Shelton, now 76, wrangles a twofer, a smart book on baseball that’s even better on the creative guts it takes to push thoughtful filmmaking through Hollywood. I love a good making-of, and this is one of the loosest, gossipiest in years.
“The Grandest Stage: A History of the World Series” ($30) by Tyler Kepner, The New York Times’ national baseball writer, works a similar carefree charm: No trudging chronology here but rather, a lively associative history, pinging from losers to coaches to even organists.
Ray Bradbury, son of Waukegan, father of geek culture, has been reissued, anthologized — probably carried into space by a few astronauts. He’s also the perfect gateway author for the parent of a reluctant reader. “The Ray Bradbury Collection” ($80) by Library of America — which gathers “The Illustrated Man,” “The Martian Chronicles,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and scores of short stories — is a perfect start. If that flops, try “Home to Stay! The Complete Ray Bradbury EC Stories” ($75), a handsome, large compilation of the nearly three dozen Bradbury tales adapted (and occasionally plagiarized) by “Tales From the Crypt” and “Weird Science.”
If a thoughtful essay holds a world, Judith Thurman’s “A Left-Handed Woman” ($30) is a solar system. The New Yorker writer’s latest very-welcome collection contains ample dives into world history, contemporary art, Amelia Earhart, Lupita Nyong’o, students of dead languages. It’s hard to be bored. That’s double for “Inciting Joy” ($27) by poet Ross Gay, partly because it’s intended to be gifted, passed-around, maybe preached: a set of candid essays on happiness that avoids treacle and quick fixes for less obvious moments (losing your phone). It’s self-help you don’t need to be embarrassed to carry. Speaking of joy: “My First Popsicle” ($26), edited by Zosia Mamet (of “Girls,” and daughter of David), draws on a vast network of the famous for bite-size thoughts on our soulful connections to eating. Slight as it sounds, there’s lots of poignancy: Ted Danson on casual racism at a dinner table, John Leguizamo on the Caribbean soup sancocho …
Shallow as it may sound, “Ice Cold: A Hip Hop Jewelry History” ($100) is one of the year’s best coffee table books, proof no subject is too thin if the insight is there. Here is an alt-history of rap that cleverly mirrors its creative evolution, from clownish crowns to African medallions and memorials to gold grills. LL Cool J provides an essay, and its short portraits of the jewelers alone edge this out of decadence toward folk art. “Listen: The Stages and Studios that Shaped American Music” ($65) does something similar: Photographer Rhona Bitner spent 13 years shooting not music but its adjacent legacy, auditoriums and open fields where music history happened. Bronzeville’s 708 Club, Uptown’s Aragon Ballroom, the high school stage where Bob Dylan first played. Each image is empty of people, and full of ghosts. Patti Smith’s “A Book of Days” ($29) nods only occasionally to music, recording a single year (2018) of Smith’s Instagram posts, which are sometimes as vapid as everyone else’s, but often, a vivid diary of stray thoughts and images. Remember when it was about the music, man! “Rolling Stone: the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” ($50) is there for you, eager to argue. It’s the first updating of the list since 2012, the one that put “What’s Going On” at No. 1.
To celebrate the centennial of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” there’s a mini-literary excavation: A new facsimile of “The Waste Land” ($40), reproducing (in color) original handwritten pages and Ezra Pound’s margin notes. “The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem” ($40), a rewarding literary dive into the alchemy of a classic, from Eliot’s leap of courage to Pound’s scorched-earth battle for respect with Poetry magazine in Chicago. Putting it all in a surprising perspective is Lyndall Gordon’s insightful “The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse” ($35). Though raised in St. Louis, and long associated with a distinct British chilliness, Eliot and his work were shaped by women rarely given their due. Drawing on more than 1,100 letters to his lifelong love Emily Hale, Gordon introduces a tangled emotional backdrop.
Alice and Martin Provensen were Chicago-born illustrators of children’s books, and though their names might be unfamiliar, you know their influence: In Little Golden Books and beyond, their pastel, cut-and-paste zoos, Venice canals and Greek warriors partly defined midcentury children’s illustration (and Disney animation). “The Art of Alice and Martin Provensen” ($35) is your enchanting, nostalgic catch-up. “Pulp Power: The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Art of the Street & Smith Universe” ($65) makes a similar case for the dime publications of 20 years earlier, pre-war, two-fisted tales of square-jaw heroes, the sort George Lucas had in mind for Indiana Jones. If you can’t see the inspiration in large reproduced covers here, “The Art of Star Wars: The High Republic” ($50) feels even less removed. It’s a look at the designs created for “Star Wars” books published right now, set in a galaxy older than Luke Skywalker.
Quentin Tarantino invites you over to watch a movie, talks so much he barely lets you watch, and after he leaves you can’t get his chattery rattle out of your head. That is roughly the experience of reading “Cinema Speculation” ($35), for better and worse: It doesn’t feel written but spewed out of a guy in love with film. It’s the book the movies could use right now, part memoir, part associative rant, and sincerely very fun. Read it then skip over to “Hollywood: The Oral History” ($37) longtime historian Jeanine Basinger’s epic landscape of gossip, insights, aches and triumphs, culled from thousands of interviews conducted by the American Film Institute. That broad title is no joke: This is as expansive a one-book history as I’ve seen in years, history as seen from Spielberg, Jordan Peele, Hitchcock, Streep and even messenger boys.
For something more honed: “Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898-1971″ ($50) captures the push-pull casual cruelty followed by the resilience that defined the first century of movies for Black Americans. Posters, histories of Black audiences, portraits of independent directors, the role of home movies, an essay by Chicago native Jacqueline Stewart (named last summer to head the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures).
By the time you’re done reading, it’ll be next Christmas.