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Gift ideas for the readers in your life

Classic fantasies, a photographer’s tell-all diaries, ancient wisdom and more

Princess Margaret, in a 1968 photograph by Milton Gendel. From “Just Passing Through: A Seven-Decade Roman Holiday,” edited by Cullen Murphy. (Appears by permission of the Fondazione Primoli in Rome)
9 min

Emily Dickinson famously insisted that “there is no frigate like a book.” Personally, I suspect she meant to write “present” rather than “frigate.” After all, books make the best Hanukkah or Christmas gifts — they’re easy to wrap, and there are plenty to choose from.

But may I suggest one caveat: Avoid bestsellers. To give the new Stephen King, the latest self-help guide or the winner of any of the major book awards shows lack of imagination. Browse around the shelves of a new or used bookstore, poke about online, visit the websites of favorite publishers (big and little, general and specialized), and think hard about what an intended recipient actually likes to read. What’s more, if you’re past 30 and gainfully employed, this is also the season for hardcovers and deluxe editions. Paperbacks are wonderful, but they are, fundamentally, utilitarian. Opt for a bit of color and dash, for something special.

Suppose, for instance, that you need a present for a serious reader of fantasy and science fiction, one on whom you’re willing to spend a bit of money. What might you consider?

You couldn’t go wrong with the long-awaited, just-published 40th-anniversary edition of John Crowley’s “Little, Big,” with art by Peter Milton and an afterword by the late Harold Bloom (Incunabula Press). Crowley’s novel — about a peculiar family with very close ties to fairyland — is widely viewed as the greatest American fantasy novel of its time. Some would say of all time.

In every way, this definitive edition is quite stellar. Even the front and back dust jacket flaps were reserved for what is, in effect, a mini-essay about the book from Neil Gaiman. For Gaiman devotees, that multitalented writer’s 1996 novel, “Neverwhere” — about a world underneath the streets of London — has just appeared in a sumptuous Folio Society edition, illustrated by Chris Malbon with an introduction by Susanna Clarke (author of “Piranesi” and “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”). This winter, with “A Dance With Dragons,” illustrated by Jonathan Burton, Folio also completes its boxed-set editions of all five published installments in George R.R. Martin’s epic “A Song of Ice and Fire.”

Crowley, Gaiman and Martin are major fantasy writers, and our reading lives would be significantly poorer without their books. But, for my money, no American author of the past half-century has produced more majestic works of the imagination than the much-missed Gene Wolfe. The four-part “Book of the New Sun,” as well as the related novels of the “Long Sun” and “Short Sun” cycles, are utterly gripping — and deeply enigmatic. This fall, Wolfe’s leading annotator, Michael André-Driussi, has finally issued “A Chapter Guide for the Long Sun & the Short Sun” (Sirius Fiction). It and André-Driussi’s “Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Book of the New Sun’: A Chapter Guide” (Sirius, 2019) will be essential starting points for future Wolfe scholars.

If Wolfe is the most sophisticated of authors, that can hardly be said of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose action-packed romances nonetheless achieve a mythic grandeur that can’t be denied. Over the past few years, Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. has produced lavish editions of “A Princess of Mars” and “Tarzan of the Apes.” This year those pulp classics are joined by “At the Earth’s Core,” the first Burroughs adventure set in Pellucidar, a realm deep inside a hollow Earth inhabited by monsters, barbaric warriors and, not least, Dian the Beautiful. This “letterpress edition” contains more than 100 illustrations from a dozen artists, living and dead, including three intimately associated with Burroughs’s work: J. Allen St. John, Frank Frazetta and Roy Krenkel.

From pulp it’s only one small step to comics. During the last couple of years, Roy Thomas, a former editor of Marvel, has compiled deluxe Folio Society albums of the greatest adventures of Spider-Man, Captain America and the Hulk. These superheroes are now joined by the mighty Thor and his formidable hammer. Besides reproducing 10 of their exploits in a colorful bound volume, the Folio “Thor” includes a facsimile of the comic — Journey Into Mystery #83 (August 1962) — that introduced the Asgardian avenger.

All of the above would make ideal gifts for a fantasy fan, but what about the poetry readers on your list? You should obviously pick out a new collection by some favorite contemporary poet and help spread the word about his or her work. As a backup, though — or in addition — consider the centennial facsimile manuscript of “The Waste Land,” edited by Valerie Eliot (Liveright). It really does show Ezra Pound’s editorial brilliance — he crossed out the entire first page of Eliot’s initial draft, so that the poem would begin with the now-famous words “April is the cruellest month.”

Two other books this year provide valuable context for Eliot’s 1922 masterpiece: Matthew Hollis’s “‘The Waste Land’: A Biography of a Poem” (Norton) and Jed Rasula’s “What the Thunder Said: How ‘The Waste Land’ Made Poetry Modern” (Princeton), a study of the cultural forces, starting with Wagnerism and French symbolism, that helped shape Eliot’s style. I would also strongly recommend Lyndall Gordon’s “The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse” (Norton), which tracks the poet’s involvement with his great love, Emily Hale, and three other women in his life: his unstable first wife, Vivien; his confidante Mary Trevelyan; and his devoted secretary and eventual second wife, Valerie. Years ago, I read Gordon’s two-part biography of Eliot, and I know that her new book will be a treat for anyone lucky enough to receive a copy.

More than ever, the Civil War is very much part of our national consciousness. The Library of America has just reissued Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy, a welcome omnibus of “Mr. Lincoln’s Army,” “Glory Road” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Stillness at Appomattox.” Included are maps by Rafael Palacios of the major conflicts and campaigns. As editor Gary W. Gallagher points out in an introduction, Catton wrote beautifully about the ordinary soldier and with stunning immediacy about battle, citing in particular his account of Spotsylvania’s “Bloody Angle,” a veritable killing field in the second engagement between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.

What if you need something a bit more lighthearted, even juicily decadent? In “Just Passing Through: A Seven-Decade Roman Holiday” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Cullen Murphy has edited the tell-all diaries of photographer Milton Gendel. In its pages we are plunged into the chic and incestuous Italy of novelist and essayist Gore Vidal (whose house in Rome, Gendel says, is “like his work … slick, easy, and sometimes sleazy”), filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, writer Sir Harold Acton, art collector Peggy Guggenheim, and the ultraposh Princess Margaret and Lady Diana Cooper. Gendel’s descriptions can be, appropriately, almost photographic: The painter Balthus, he writes, “is like a lizard with a high IQ. Deliberate movements of the head. Quick eye. From the lizard comes slow deliberate speech, which gives even banalities a certain weight or at least measure.”

Comparably entertaining, if less gossipy, is “A Left-Handed Woman” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the collected essays of Judith Thurman, best known for her magnificent biographies of Colette and Isak Dinesen. These New Yorker pieces by an exemplary cultural journalist largely focus on the achievements of women in multiple fields. Thurman tells us about photographer Lee Miller, aeronaut Amelia Earhart and children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder, then goes on to discuss the fiction of Rachel Cusk and Elena Ferrante, the work of Helen Gurley Brown (author of “Sex and the Single Girl”), and the influence of Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking “The Second Sex.” In an introduction, Thurman notes that “the writers I most admire never use a careless word.” Neither does she.

One of Thurman’s many essays focuses on Cleopatra, who is also the subject of Francine Prose’s “Cleopatra: Her History, Her Myth,” part of a trio of concise biographies in the new Yale series “Ancient Lives.” The other two volumes are more surprising: James Romm’s “Demetrius: Sacker of Cities” tracks the exploits of the most ambitious of Alexander the Great’s successors, while Peter Stothard’s “Crassus: The First Tycoon” recounts the career and dismal end of the richest man in Rome. All three make excellent stocking-stuffers, but you’ll need a lot more wrapping paper for Judith Herrin’s enthralling overview of the Eastern Roman Empire, “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire,” first published in 2007 but now available in a splendid new edition from the Folio Society.

These days, we can all use some “Ancient Wisdom,” which is the name of an attractive series of pocket-size hardbacks from Princeton. All the titles begin with the words “How to …” For instance, this fall’s “How to Have a Life: An Ancient Guide to Using Our Time Wisely” offers James Romm’s translation of Seneca’s essay “De Brevitate Vitae” (“On the Shortness of Life”): “While you keep busy, life hastens on; and all the while death will be there, and you’ll have to free up time for that, like it or not.” Other recent titles include “How to Say No,” selections from Diogenes and the Cynics chosen and translated by M.D. Usher, and “How to Grieve,” a translation by Michael Fontaine of a Renaissance treatise inspired by the writings of Cicero. Each volume comes with the original Latin or Greek on the left-hand pages.

Let me stress that all of the above would make superb gifts, but my principal point is simply: Find out what your friends and loved ones like, then seek out books that will surprise them.

Still, it wouldn’t be Christmas — as Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters might have said — without any coffee table books. I’m not usually a fan of this genre, but “Big,” by Marko Dimitrijevic and Amos Nachoum, took my breath away. Published by teNeues, this oversize album contains the most amazing, close-up photographs of whales, sharks, elephants, bears, tigers, apes and other “big” animals. Just glance at a few pages — whether online or at a bookstore — and you will be awestruck by the beauty and elegance, the sheer magnificence of these creatures. Let’s take better care of them all.

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