Few gifts are more welcome than a richly illustrated, glossy coffee-table book. The volumes here and on the following pages are recommended by Book World's staff. Reviewers are: Marie Arana, Jonathan Yardley, Jabari Asim, K. Francis Tanabe, Dennis Drabelle, Jennifer Howard, Dwight Thompson, Mary Morris, Christopher Schoppa and Nina King.

American Greats, edited by Robert A. Wilson and Stanley Marcus (Public Affairs, $50). The provenance of this large, somewhat glitzy book is unusual, if not peculiar. Its editors are a couple of Texans, one (Wilson) the owner of a "communications firm" and the other (Marcus) the chairman emeritus of the emporium that bears his name, Nieman Marcus; not merely that, but one learns upon opening the book that its "development" was underwritten by American Airlines, the logo of which is printed in bright red and blue. No doubt complimentary copies will be under the Christmas trees of the airline's most intimate friends and customers. Others who care to fork over $50 to decorate their coffee tables will find a decidedly upbeat celebration of the United States at the turn of the millennium, but one that gives due attention to the struggles the country has undergone, the civil-rights movement most particularly. There are many pictures in both color and black-and-white, all well reproduced. Most of the text is an unsigned narrative, interspersed within which are (very) brief essays by various notables, among them John Updike writing about the magazine in which he has appeared for so many years, the New Yorker, and Gary Giddins on Duke Ellington. Perhaps they were paid in frequent-flyer miles. . . . -- J.Y.

Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (Basic/Civitas, $100). At 2,095 pages, some two million words and roughly 8 1/2 lbs., Africana is undoubtedly one of the weightiest literary contributions of the season. Editors Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr., both renowned scholars and colleagues in Harvard University's Dept. of Afro-American Studies, have accomplished a goal long dreamed of by earlier scholars in the field. Most notable of these was W.E.B. Du Bois, to whom this volume is dedicated. As Appiah and Gates note in their introduction, Du Bois envisioned a "comprehensive compendium of `scientific' knowledge about the history, cultures, and social institutions of people of African descent: of Africans in the Old World, African Americans in the New World, and persons of African descent who had risen to prominence in Europe, the Middle East and Asia." Du Bois first announced his project in 1909 but died in 1963 without having accomplished his dream. Building on Du Bois's original plan, Appiah and Gates assembled a team of academic all-stars to work on the project, including David Levering Lewis, Nell Irvin Painter and Arnold Rampersad. Such an expansive project provides room for a wealth of entries -- and inevitably requires difficult exclusions. The information and personalities compiled in Africana span nearly every conceivable category, from early history to hip-hop. In addition to being an essential research tool for anyone with even a passing interest in things African, this whopper of a book offers the unique pleasure derived from most successful compilations of this type: A casual flip through its pages yields a compelling read wherever one's finger lands. -- J.A.

The thrill of examining the reproductions in Earl B. McElfresh's Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War (Abrams, $55) is looking, in many cases, at the same layouts that guided the troop placement and attacks of Lee, Grant, Jackson, Sherman and lesser military lights. The originals of some maps have small holes along the fold-seams -- places where extensive use has worn through the paper. Some were drawn by true artists of the genre, such as Jed Hotchkiss for the Confederacy and Nathaniel Michler for the Union. Others were done by cartographers who later became more famous in other fields, such as Ambrose Bierce, who went on to write ghost stories and The Devil's Dictionary, and Washington Roebling, the engineer who supervised the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. In the accompanying text, Earl McElfresh, himself a distinguished cartographer, explains how the typical Civil War mapmaker worked. He "would ride with a drawing board resting on the pommel of his saddle. His first sketching would be one with a soft lead pencil. . . . The pencil might well be tied with a piece of string to a buttonhole so it could not be dropped. For an eraser, the mapmaker used a piece of hard India rubber, also attached to him by a string. In a pinch, a piece of stale bread would suffice as an eraser. A wooden ruler, handy for making straight lines, for measuring, and for balancing on an extended finger to estimate a distant grade, would be safely stowed in a top boot when not in use." -- D.D.

Little Bighorn Remembered: The Untold Indian Story of Custer's Last Stand, by Herman J. Viola (Times, $45) When white men started appearing on the Northern Plains in the late 18th century, one Crow chief was quoted as saying, "These men with light eyes and hairy faces are here now. . . . We can kill them off, but more will come. They are like ants. Trample them, and more will come out. My advice is that we, the Absarokee treat these `light eyes' kindly and give them protection from other tribes. Some day they will reciprocate and be our friends." The result, as we know, was very different. The once mighty Arikara tribe, nearly 39,000 people in four large villages, was ravaged by foreign diseases: pneumonia, dysentery and smallpox. After 1781, what was left of them were gathered in one village. Their Chief White Shield said: "It has been prophesized that a people of different skin color would be coming and would change our ways of living. They are here now, so we will have to learn to live with them." When the Crow and Arikara were approached by the U.S. government to aid in the pursuit of their traditional enemies -- the Lakota and Cheyenne -- they agreed, and rode by Custer's side in 1876 at Little Bighorn. Their tribes fared no better than the others at the hands of the government. Herman Viola, a Smithsonian curator emeritus, brings the events alive with new research including oral histories, battle drawings and archaeological battlefield evidence. -- M.M.