Owning an impressive photography book is almost like having a museum in your own home: comprehensive and colossal, hard on the arm, but easy on the eye, these books offer more visual riches per square inch than the most glamorous of galleries. The perfect way to enliven any library, they're packed with culture from cover to cover, pretty and portable (sort of). So dispense with the seasonal indecision. Tilt the scale in your favor when it comes to holiday gift-giving and pick up one of these treasures for the coffee table they're a treat for any aesthete and the ultimate indulgence for the art lover on your list. Judging books by their covers There are unimagined beauties hidden deep in your dictionary, and Abelardo Morell has found them. Aiming his lens at the shelves of the Boston Public Library, among other institutions, the photographer has produced A Book of Books (Bulfinch, $60, 108 pages, ISBN 0821227696), a striking collection of black-and-white pictures presenting books as objets d'art, pleasing to the eye as well as the intellect. Re-envisioning the library, Morell finds magic in the stacks, capturing unforgettable images the marbled bottom of a formidable dictionary; gilded spines on a book-lined wall from ingenious angles. Here are venerable survivors (volumes damaged by water and dirt), classics in close-up (A Farewell to Arms; A Tale of Two Cities) and a visitor from the future (a digital text), all coupled with quotes about books from authors like Emily Dickinson, Jorge Luis Borges and Samuel Butler. From an Audubon folio as big as a table to the tiniest of texts a wee book that makes a paper clip look big Morrell has compiled a collection that's rich in literary delights, abundant with the wonder of words. Nicholson Baker, author of Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, provides the preface.

The genius of Stieglitz The work of a master photographer is celebrated in Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, the hefty, comprehensive companion to the Stieglitz collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Spanning five decades, from 1886 to 1937, the two-volume edition contains more than 1,000 images and provides a thorough survey of the New Jersey native's work. From portraits and cityscapes, to studies of his wife, the painter Georgia O'Keefe, The Key Set collects the work of a man who captured America and Europe on film with an expert eye, applying painterly concepts to the picture-taking process and becoming the first photographer to be exhibited in American museums. Released just as a traveling exhibition of the Stieglitz collection is set to begin in the U. S., the handsomely boxed volumes include a chronology and bibliography, along with an introductory essay by Sarah Greenough, curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art.

History in pictures Two centuries after the fact, we're still feeling the repercussions of the War Between the States. A moving testament to the conflict that redefined the lines of color and kin in America, The Civil War in Photographs (Carlton, $39.95, 256 pages, ISBN 1842226363) by historian William C. Davis is a remarkable pictorial account of the era. More than 300 classic images show the major arenas of battle and the men who participated, from bold, beardless youths to intrepid leaders like Lee and Sherman. Taken on the front and in the studio, these pictures gleaned from the work of 2,000 photographers evoke the drama of the first war to be extensively captured on camera. Documenting the famous and the anonymous, depicting life in camp and in the trenches, the volume combines portraits of soldiers and citizens with startling scenes of destruction, including images of Atlanta laid waste. Putting it all in perspective is Davis, director of programs at the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, whose lucid, lively text accompanies the photographs.

 

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