These three new publications, taken together (what a good gift idea!), fairly sum up the diverse approaches of nature lovers towards their oversized passions.

Possibly the most common attitude of the enthusiastic naturalist is obsession, a loving preoccupation with a single corner of the natural world. Tamsin Pickeral, the author of The Majesty of the Horse: An Illustrated History, exerts the full force of her expertise as an art historian in paying the ultimate lavish attention to every great breed of horse on Earth. The combination of vastly intelligent text and magnificent photographs by Astrid Harrisson turns each turning of the page into a revelation of scientific fact, historical inquiry and visual splendor. Even the titles identifying each breed of horse, along with its origins, seem like little poems in themselves—for instance, “Knabstrup: Ancient—Denmark—Uncommon.” The close-up of this creature’s gorgeous spotted hide on the facing page perfectly embodies the mysterious and immemorial bond between us and the horse.

Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide
is the runaway science bestseller of the year in this revised and updated version, and for good reason. Whatever your curiosity about the animal kingdom, whether you’re four years old or 94, this glorious tome will be a pleasure to explore, an entire education between two covers, a delight for the eye and the ever-flowering mind. After so many years of trial and error, Dorling Kindersley has perfected its visual format, whereby a dizzying array of images and text on every page somehow coheres into a lucid fabric of comprehensive knowledge. But there is a further region of book magic, where knowledge ascends into wisdom. As this DK guide proceeds from general facts about animals (evolution, conservation, habitats) into the specific wonders of various phyla, genera and species, it is impossible to sustain the illusion any longer that we are distinct from the quotidian marvels we are seeing and reading about on the page.

The poet William Blake invites us “to see a world in a grain of sand,” and there’s no better way to RSVP to Mr. Blake than to treat yourself to the endless astonishments of Giles Sparrow’s The Natural World Close-Up. On the pair of opened pages devoted to “Sand,” Sparrow typically gives us three levels of magnification: a stretch of desert sand dune, a life-sized close-up of a sandy handful, and then a view magnified 91 times, showing a dozen grains of sand beautifully blown up into big irregular asteroids, each one pockmarked uniquely with the ravages of time and wind and infrequent rainfall. The wonders never cease. In the section devoted to insects, we encounter at overwhelmingly close range the cellblock pattern making up a butterfly’s wing, every ward of which seems to be a thought; the manifold ingenuity of light-capture on a fly’s eye; the straightforward miracle of pollen-capture on a bee’s leg; and the Piranesi prison of a spider web. In the same poem, Blake also enjoins the reader “to hold infinity in the palm of your hand.” To do just that, simply hold this book in hand and look the tiny tadpole on page 119 right in its bizarrely developing eyes, magnified 38 times.

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