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Holiday Coffee-table Books for the Whole Damn Family

Many of us, I’m told, still live in buildings created specifically for human housing. And the more fortunate among us, so the story goes, have multiple rooms at our disposal. Some of these, so-called living rooms, contain not only television sets and comfortable chairs and sofas but coffee tables; and I’m told that when the winter holidays strike — Christmas, for example — recipients of oversize books are expected to place them upon these coffee tables, between the television sets, comfortable chairs and sofas, so that during the last week of the year, the books may be scrutinized by visiting family members and friends before being demoted to the lower bookshelves and forgotten or put up for auction on eBay.

Traditionally, winter holidays (Christmas, for example) require the exchange of heavier, more expensively bound books than those exchanged over the holidays of any other season. A certain weight — a certain majesty — is expected of books given to commemorate the birth of dead magical rabbis, versus the trade paperbacks required to sate the pedestrian living. And the same tradition dictates a general rule for proper bliss distribution: Give friends books to read; give family books to look at.

Wisely, the Weekly’s editors have asked me — a man without a living room, a coffee table, a family or the financial means to buy oversize books — to suggest some coffee- table-style gift books for your family to pretend to enjoy.

Here’s your family: Ma and Pa, fundamentalist Christians from Kansas or north San Diego County. They’re the ones who taught you to associate the weight of gifts with the degree of affection. Too late to teach them otherwise, so give them a very, very large book — 1,064 pages, 12 inches square and 4 inches thick, weighing in at 12 pounds: 30,000 Years of Art: The Story of Human Creativity Across Time and Space (Phaidon, $50). As they opposably thumb through the glorious heft of “1,000 masterpieces from the earliest times to the present,” they can explain to you how human beings were creating complex works of art for at least 24,000 years before their God showed up and created them. (Answer: “God created radiometric dating to test our faith.”)

Your younger sister means well. It is without pleasure that she wakes you up at 6 a.m. with a call from her married-into-money Shaker Heights estate to remind you, in subtle ways, how much of a failure you are simply because you have no living room or coffee table. But no matter how hard she tries to suppress it for financial gain, she still has a good sense of humor. So engiftulate her The Rejection Collection, Volume 2: The Cream of the Crap (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, $23), edited by New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee, so she can privately delight in the 304 pages of hilarious submissions by Diffee’s colleagues — New Yorker regular contributors — that were rejected for publication in the magazine because they were too . . . disturbing, or too . . . insensitive, or just too fucking funny.

For your older brother, the English professor in Boston, with whom you shared hundreds of childhood hours reading Mad magazine, hours which you both recall as being some of the very happiest of your lives: The Completely Mad Don Martin (Running Press, $150 [Cheap!]) is a robust, handsomely packaged two-volume slipcovered retrospective, its 16 wondrous pounds of 1,000 pages containing every flap-footed, tuber-jawed, chicken-legged, wig-flipping, Buddha-bellied grotesque humanoid that “Mad’s maddest artist” penned for the magazine between 1956 and 1988. Martin was a master of visual onomatopoetics and — for you and your older brother — a kind of bridge between the more mainstream Mad magazine and the downright underground work of R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. With so many fascinating characters, tales, FRAKs, KLOONs, SPLOPs and FAGROONs reproduced in crisp, loving detail, this collection is perhaps more of a reason to celebrate than the holidays themselves. (That said, if you too lack the necessary funds, your brother might well appreciate The Original Art of Basil Wolverton: From the Collection of Glenn Bray, at $35 from Last Gasp a bargain, especially considering the essay by the Weekly’s Doug Harvey.)

And to remind your older sister, the insurance adjuster in Salt Lake City, that she once listened to good music: Jimi Hendrix: An Illustrated Experience (Atria Books, $45). Janie Hendrix (Jimi’s stepsister) and co-author John McDermott reveal the rock legend’s biography through stories and rare photographs from the family archives, and there’s a music/interview CD with tracks from Morning Symphony Idea and Live at Clark University attached; but it’s the removable reproductions of handbills and posters and handwritten notes — lyrics, letters, sketches done on hotel stationery, lined three-hole looseleaf — stuffed into pockets throughout that make this such an enjoyable object to mess around with.

And finally, a gift for yourself, because you’ve heard it’s healthy to give yourself gifts: The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You: A Guide to Self-Diagnosis for Hypochondriacs (Knock Knock Press, $20). Every kind of mysterious ailment and horrible malady, psychosomatic and otherwise, tastefully illustrated and organized by body part and symptom. May the Glory of the Season provide you with the self-destructive hypervigilance to distinguish one symptom from the other, so that after you’re dead, you can look back and say, “Aha!” With any luck, you may be included in future editions of Mütter Museum: Historic Medical Photographs (Blast Books, $50), which offers up such treats as the 5-foot-round, 182-pound ovarian tumor of one Yu Yung Lan of Shanghai in 1894.

For those with larger imaginary families (or, in the case of Walton Ford, larger pocketbooks), we or I also recommend: Walton Ford: Pancha Tantra (Taschen, 354 pages; art edition, $6,500; collector’s edition, $1,250); Monuments: America’s History in Art and Memory by Judith Dupré (Random House, 272 pages, $45); Sculpture Todayby Judith Collins (Phaidon, 464 pages, $70); Punk Is Dead Punk Is Everything by Bryan Ray Turcotte (Gingko Press, 288 pages, $40); Graciela Iturbide: Juchitán by Judith Keller, photographs (Getty Trust Publications, 64 pages, $30); Alison Jackson Confidential (Taschen, 264 pages, $40); Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century by Richard Flood, et al. (Phaidon, 216 pages, $70); The Deviant’s Pocket Guide to the Outlandish Sexual Desires Barely Contained in Your Subconscious by Dennis DiClaudio (Bloomsbury, 208 pages, $15); The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill(Wildstorm, 208 pages, $30); Learning to Love You More by Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July (Prestel, 158 pages, $20); Africa by Sebastiao Salgado (Taschen, 336 pages, $60); Chuck Close: Work by Christopher Finch (Prestel, 335 pages, $85); Chinese Posters: Art From the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution by Lincoln Cushing and Ann Tompkins (Chronicle Books, 144 pages, $20); Cinema Now by Andrew Bailey (Ed. Paul Duncan, Taschen, 574 pages, $40); and Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’Stardust: Being a Romance Within the Realms of Faerie (Vertigo, 256 pages, $40).


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