Here is a suggestion: This holiday season, just give books and be done with it. Buy from a bookshop or order online, but try to avoid trendy bestsellers — they are so ho-ho-hum. Really, if you have read one, you have basically read them all. Okay, that is an exaggeration, but books are like wild strawberries: You need to clear away the overgrowth and search a little to find the sweetest and best. Consider, for instance, this random sackful:
“The Four Gospels” (The Folio Society). A facsimile of the revered Golden Cockerel Press edition featuring engravings by that supreme book artist, Eric Gill.
“Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings,” edited by Tanya Kirk (British Library) and “The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories: Volume 3,” edited by Simon Stern (Valancourt Books). An old tale’s best for winter . . . especially a spooky one.
“The William H. Gass Reader” (Knopf). The most dazzling essays and fiction by the most virtuosic prose stylist of our time.
“For the Sake of the Game: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon,” edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger (Pegasus). More cases for which the world is finally prepared. See also: “Sherlock Holmes Is Like : Sixty Comparisons for an Incomplete Character,” edited by Christopher Redmond (Wildside Press). Essays comparing the Great Detective to Mr. Spock, Hermione Granger and other brainy characters.
“The Story of Science,” by Joy Hakim (Smithsonian). An exhilarating three-volume survey for young people by the author of the much-loved, 10-part history of our country, “A History of US.”
“Photography and the 1851 Great Exhibition,” by Anthony Hamber (Oak Knoll). Any student of early photography — or of the international exposition housed in the famous Crystal Palace in London — will covet this magisterial work of careful scholarship and beautiful bookmaking.
“Leaving the Gay Place: Billy Lee Brammer and the Great Society,” by Tracy Daugherty (University of Texas). The man behind that great American novel about politics and politicking, “The Gay Place.”
“Captain James Cook: The Journals 1768-1779,” selected and edited by Philip Edwards (Three volumes, Folio Society). These are the voyages of Captain James Cook, his lifelong mission to explore strange new lands and to boldly go where almost no one had gone before.
“The Zoran Zivkovic Collection” (Cadmus Press). The complete fiction — in 11 volumes — of arguably the most remarkable fabulist since Borges and Calvino. See also “Zivkovic’s First Contact and Time Travel: Selected Essays and Short Stories” (Springer).
“Album: Unpublished Correspondence and Texts,” by Roland Barthes, translated by Judy Gladding (Columbia). The paradigmatic French intellectual, up close and intimate.
“How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life,” by Epictetus; translated by A.A. Long (Princeton) and “Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behavior,” by Theophrastus; translated by Pamela Mensch (Callaway). Two usefully pocket-size volumes, one on how to achieve serenity, the other presenting classic pen-portraits of liars, slanderers and other scoundrels.
“The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands,” edited by Huw Lewis-Jones (Chicago). Cartographic dreamscapes, with essays by Philip Pullman, David Mitchell and others.
“Sleeping with the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror,” by Darryl Jones (Oxford) and “Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror,” by W. Scott Poole (Counterpoint). Which is more terrifying: the darkness without or the darkness within?
“Levi-Strauss: A Biography,” by Emmanuelle Loyer, translated by Ninon VInsonneau (Polity) and “Claude Levi-Strauss: A Critical Study of His Thought, by Maurice Godelier,” translated by Jonathan Magidoff (Verso). Anthropology’s modern master: From the classic ethnological memoir “Tristes Tropiques” to the structural study of myth and culture.
“The Case of the Light Fantastic Toe,” by D. Sidney-Fryer (Phosphor Lantern Press). On balance, nothing less than a five-volume celebration of romantic ballet.
“The Du Mauriers Just As They Were,” by Anne Hall (Unicorn Publishing). Happy or unhappy — what a family! An illustrated account of George du Maurier (creator of Trilby and Svengali), his acclaimed actor-manager son Gerald and the latter’s daughter Daphne, author of “Rebecca.”
“Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams,” A film by Darin Coelho Spring (Hippocampus Press DVD) and “London After Midnight: An English Translation of the 1929 French Novelization of the Lost Lon Chaney Film,” edited by Thomas Mann; translation by Kieran O’Driscoll (BearManor). An enthralling documentary about the third great contributor to Weird Tales magazine (along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard) and new light on a much-argued-about silent film classic.
“The Caesar of Paris: Napoleon Bonaparte, Rome, and the Artistic Obsession That Shaped an Empire,” by Susan Jaques (Pegasus) and “Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948,” by Ramachandra Guha (Knopf). Two visionary leaders and the revolutions they fostered, expertly chronicled.
“The Spy’s Bedside Book,” edited by Graham and Hugh Greene; illustrated by Nick Hardcastle (Folio Society) and “Goldfinger,” by Ian Fleming; illustrated by Fay Dalton (Folio Society). Stories, essays and poems about the world’s second oldest profession and the latest — in an ongoing set — of the outrageously entertaining adventures of Bond, James Bond.
“Starlight Man: The Extraordinary Life of Algernon Blackwood,” by Mike Ashley (Stark House). The biography, newly updated, of a mystical pantheist whose sublimely terrifying stories include “The Wendigo” and “The Willows.”
“The Beautiful Cassandra,” by Jane Austen; afterword by Claudia L. Johnson; artwork by Leon Steinmetz (Princeton); “Treatise on Modern Stimulants,” by Honore de Balzac; translated by Kassy Hayden (Wakefield) ; “The Daily Charles Dickens: A Year of Quotes,” edited by James R. Kincaid (Chicago). Three literary stocking stuffers, the first a 465-word “novel” enhanced with charming pen-and-ink silhouette illustrations; the second a great writer’s thoughts on alcohol, coffee and tobacco; the third an almanac of sharp observation and humor.
“Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards,” edited by Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens (Prospecta Press). A not-to-be-missed Festschrift commemorating this witty avant-garde publisher, photographer and man of letters.
“Sounding Brass: A Curious Musical Partnership” and “Nirvana Express: Journal of a Very Brief Monkhood,” both by S.P. Somtow (Diplodocus Press). Two lively autobiographical works: In the first the Thai writer and musical prodigy becomes the “ghost composer” for a Washington politico; in the second, an unexpected midlife epiphany leads to a Buddhist monastery.
“A History of Silence: From the Renaissance to the Present Day,” by Alain Corbin (Polity). A quietly learned book for our loudly cacophonous age.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
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