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7 beautiful books that transport you to the worlds of Bond, Tolkien, Spider-Man and beyond

What do Santa Claus, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a certain Washington Post reviewer and the Lord High Executioner from “The Mikado” all have in common? Give up? Each of us has been known to say, “I’ve got a little list.” This holiday season, though, my list isn’t so little. In fact, it will extend over three weeks. This is the first, focusing on large-sized, illustrated nonfiction.

‘Godine at Fifty: A Retrospective of Five Decades in the Life of an Independent Publisher,’ by David R. Godine ($49.50)

That a Godine book is beautifully designed and printed is a given, but this richly illustrated volume has something more going for it: Incisive short essays by David Godine himself, recalling how he came to publish each of the many titles listed and pictured.

For longtime readers, turning these pages can quickly became a sentimental journey. In my case, I wrote about many of these books when they first appeared — works by Stanley Elkin, Georges Perec, K.C. Constantine, Guy Davenport, William Steig, Howard Nemerov. Most pleasing of all, though, Godine highlights Peter C. Marzio’s “The Democratic Art,” a survey of 19th-century American lithographs — and the only work ever reviewed for The Post by near-legendary prints-and-drawings conservator Marian Peck Dirda. Of course, she did consult with an in-house editor.

‘The Annotated Arabian Nights,’ edited by Paulo Lemos Horta; translated by Yasmine Seale (Liveright, $45)

Some “annotated” editions are perfunctory affairs — not this one. It’s a 700-page equivalent of Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders. In his substantial introduction, Paulo Lemos Horta, who teaches at New York University at Abu Dhabi, deftly surveys several centuries of “Arabian Nights” scholarship. Seale, in translating the major stories, separates them into three categories: Those derived from actual Arabic manuscripts, those — including “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba”— first recited by the Islamic pilgrim Hanna Diyab and then fleshed out by Antoine Galland into elegant 18th-century French, and, finally, those that only exist as Galland’s summaries of stories recounted by Diyab. In general, Seale’s Englishing of “Alf Layla wa-Layla”— “The Thousand Nights and a Night” — redresses the 19th-century’s Orientalizing bent and occasional racism, while also reminding us that women, and not just Scheherazade, are at the heart of these wonderful stories.

Horta’s abundant marginal notes are apt and up-to-date; the volume’s numerous illustrations range from romantic Edmund Dulac watercolors to classic movie stills; and an appendix reprints short works influenced by the “Nights,” including Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Nameless City.” Not least, the great British Arabist Robert Irwin provides a detailed essay analyzing the character and origin of the tales that came to us through Diyab. This is one present that anybody would be thrilled to open, says me.

‘Gothic: An Illustrated History,’ by Roger Luckhurst (Princeton, $35)

Rest assured: This isn’t a study of flying buttresses and stained glass. It’s a substantial overview of horror in books, art and film. Roger Luckhurst, of Birkbeck, University of London, divides his vast subject into 20 tropes or themes, such as “Ruins,” “Labyrinth,” “Village,” and “Wilderness.” He interprets one multiform category, “Monster,” from an original angle — the creature’s physical characteristics. Thus five chapters here are titled “Scale,” “Splice,” “The Tentacle,” “Formless” and “Us.”

Luckhurst knows his subject inside out and speaks with equal flair about novelist Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho,” movies such as “The Wicker Man” and “Witchfinder General,” or the latest Japanese anime. There are 350 illustrations in toto, most highly atmospheric, although a few, like a torture scene from Herschell Gordon Lewis’s film “Two Thousand Maniacs” aren’t for the faint of heart.

‘The Lord of the Rings, ’ by J.R.R. Tolkien (Mariner, $75)

This new, one-volume edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy features the author’s artwork throughout and could be just the right gift for an 11- or 12-year-old. For already committed devotees of Middle-Earth, Mariner has reissued “Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien,” edited by Christopher Tolkien. Its third edition uses state-of-the-art digital scans to bring out the full beauty of Tolkien’s drawings and watercolors.

‘Bond: The Definitive Collection,’ photographed by Terry O’Neill (ACC Art Books, $65)

No fan of 007 will want to miss this coffee-table album — not that you could: The cover displays a huge chiaroscuro headshot of Roger Moore looking devastatingly handsome. Over the years, Terry O’Neill photographed all the men who played British secret agent James Bond, from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, sometimes in character but often showing the actors relaxing when not on set. Also pictured — occasionally in dishabille — are 007’s many seductive co-stars starting with Ursula Andress and Honor Blackman. As the poet Dryden maintained, “None but the brave deserves the fair.”

‘The Landmark Xenophon’s “Anabasis,” ’ edited by Shane Brennan and David Thomas; translated by David Thomas (Pantheon, $49.50)

The Landmark series presents classics of ancient history — previous volumes focused on the works of Herodotus, Thucydides and Julius Caesar — in a format that makes even annotated editions look skimpy. Maps, photographs, explanatory notes, extracts from related documents, extensive bibliographies and an encyclopedic index consequently add deep context to “Anabasis,” Xenophon’s eyewitness account of the 10,000 Greek mercenaries who, in the 5th century BCE, trekked across half of Asia Minor as they battled to return home. Note to cinephiles: The cult movie “The Warriors” reworks the story using a Coney Island gang fighting its way across a hostile New York.

‘Spider-Man,’ by Roy Thomas (Folio Society, $125)

To complement his three-volume historical sampler of Marvel Comics (“The Golden Age,” “The Silver Age,” “The Bronze Age”), the company’s former editor in chief, Roy Thomas, has begun to assemble additional volumes, each devoted to a major superhero. After last year’s Captain Marvel, this fall’s release showcases everyone’s favorite web-slinger in eight representative Spider-Man adventures, starring either Peter Parker or Miles Morales. Given the ritzy Folio Society treatment, Spidey never looked so good — and that goes for his archenemies, too, including my grandson’s favorites, Venom and Doctor Octopus. So if you know someone enthralled by the Spider-Verse, your shopping is done.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

Holiday Book Roundup

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