If the prospect of fighting crowds and choosing gift books seems insurmountably grim, try perusing (but not buying) The Art of Giving by Stuart Jacobson (Abrams: $40; 216 pp.; 253 illustrations, 186 in color) to arouse the holiday spirit. This silly "gift-styles of the rich and famous" demonstrates just how much a thoughtful gesture can mean--especially when it's backed by something like the Andy Warhol painting Pierre Berge gave Yves Saint Laurent, or the 51-carat Golconda diamond Pierre Schlumberger gave his wife, Sao. Remember: It's the thought that counts.
Major gems lie beyond the means of most shoppers: That's one of their chief attractions. But large books about jewelry appear every holiday season, and The Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor by Nicholas Rayner and John Culme (Vendome: $50; 208 pp.; 120 illustrations, 75 in color) is sure to be a popular choice. Rayner and Culme combine an account of the sale of her collection (which raised $45 million for AIDS research earlier this year) with an auction catalogue and a brief history of her romance with the Duke. These heavy, late Art Deco pieces may not appeal to every taste, must their quality is indisputable.
American Jewelry: Glamour and Tradition by Penny Prodow & Debra Healy (Rizzoli: $65; 208 pp.; 224 illustrations, 200 in color) is overview that includes both Bulgari's necklaces set with ancient coins and Cartier's early '40s gold and enamel bracelets of Disney cartoon characters. With a past that stretches back to Neolithic times, the bead is a lot more venerable than most people realize, as Lois Dubin demonstrates in her vast The History of Beads: From 30,000 B.C. to the Present (Abrams: $60; 368 pp.; 381 illustrations, 268 in color).
Leslie Fields pays respectful homage to the world's greatest gem collection in The Queen's Jewels: The Personal Collection of Elizabeth II (Abrams: $29.95; 192 pp.; 285 illustrations, 85 in color). Many of these dazzling pieces are less notable for aesthetic quality than sheer size--like the brooch with the 530.2-carat First Star of Africa. The Kremlin and Its Treasures by Irinia Rodimzeva, Nikolai Rachmanov & Alfons Raiman (Rizzoli: $75; 356 pp.; 278 illustrations, 252 in color) features a few examples from the Imperial Russian jewels, which rivaled the British regalia. But the real focus of this magnificent book is the Kremlin itself, the buildings and their history, from the Muscovite princes to Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mae West once purred, "I collect diamonds: It's m'hobby." The season's most attractive book on more modest collectibles is Radios: The Golden Age by Philip Collins (Chronicle: $25, cloth; $14.95, paper; 128 pp.; "more than 110" color illustrations). The 50-year-old Art Deco plastic radios remain strikingly elegant. (Will anyone be writing a similar book on contemporary boom boxes and Walkmans in 2037?)
Blue and White China: Origins/Western Influences by Rosalind Fischell (Little, Brown: $35; 160 pp.; 110 illustrations, 90 in color) offers an interesting study in cross-cultural cross pollination. For most of their history, Chinese potters held blue-and-white ware in low esteem, but they adapted Western forms and motifs to please their foreign customers, who adored it. Victor Arwas' more scholarly and less entertaining Glass: Art Nouveau to Art Deco (Abrams: $65; 384 pp.; 478 illustrations, 338 in color) is intended for serious collectors, rather than general readers.
This year's Wretched Excess in Excelcis Award goes to Barbie: Her Life and Times by BillyBoy (Crown: $25; 192 pp.; 400 illustrations, 300 in color), an orchidaceous paean to the popular doll and her clothes. That an adult could devote so much effort to this sustained idiocy is a telling comment on American culture.
A few outstanding books from the current crop on furniture and interior decoration: The designs in Shaker: Life, Work and Art (Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $40; 272 pp.; 200 color illustrations) stress the inherent beauty of natural materials in ways that recall traditional Japanese design. The timeless dignity of these furnishings exerts a powerful appeal in an era of gaudy Memphis fripperies.
American Furniture From the Kaufman Collection by J. Michael Flanigan (Abrams: $45; 264 pp.; 178 illustrations, 150 in color) catalogues an impressive assemblage of antiques, but the text is so technical and detailed that it's accessible only to scholars. In contrast, Lucilla Watson's superficial Understanding Antiques (Viking: $19.95; 200 pp.; 600 illustrations, 450 in color) attempts to cover so many arts, styles and countries that reading it is like racing through a minor gallery on roller skates.
Anyone wondering where to stow all this furniture might try The Farmhouse by Chippy Irvine (Bantam: $34.95; 242 pp.; "more than 200" illustrations in color). But these elaborate rooms, filled with antique pewter and Chinese porcelain suggest a professional decorator's apartment, rather than Ma and Pa Kettle's place. Similarly, it's hard to tell "Country House Style" from "Romantic Style" or "Period Style" in Laura Ashley Style by Iain Gale & Susan Irvine (Harmony: $30; 192 pp.; more than 250 illustrations in color). All the rooms feature the same fabrics, overstuffed furniture and designer bric-a-brac. Getting on the British design firm's mailing list is probably easier (and certainly cheaper) than bothering with this fawning endorsement disguised as a book.
An informative text and excellent color reproductions set America's Glorious Quilts, edited by Dennis Duke and Deborah Harding (Macmillan: $75; 320 pp.; 300 illustrations in color) apart from many recent, superficial books on the subject. Judith Weissman and Wendy Lavitt discuss not only quilting, but weaving, dying, embroidery and stitchery in Labors of Love: America's Textiles and Needlework, 1650-1930 (Knopf: $50; 304 pp.; 300 illustrations, 194 in color). The thoughtful essays combine technical data with reflections on the hobbies--and duties--of women in American history. A Lady of Fashion: Barbara Johnson's Album of Style and Fabrics, edited by Nathalie Rothstein (Thames & Hudson: $75; 208 pp.; 122 illustrations, 93 in color) offers a rare, intimate glimpse into the mind of an 18th-Century woman. "Lady of Fashion" is a facsimile of the detailed record the well-born English woman kept of the fabrics she purchased for clothes, including swatches and contemporary fashion illustrations.
Three new books deal with a special aspect of American popular culture: Disneyana. The gift book for animation fans this year is Too Funny for Words: Disney's Greatest Sight Gags by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (Abbeville: $39.95; 224 pp.; "more than 500" illustrations"). The veteran artists analyze the various types of gags used in the classic cartoons, illustrating their ideas with dozens of original drawings. A welcome reminder that animation is a visual medium, at a time when it's been reduced to so much illustrated radio in recent features and TV shows.
Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters by John Grant (Harper & Row: $35; 352 pp.; "more than 500" illustrations in color) ranks as the ultimate Disney reference book. Grant meticulously catalogues every cartoon character, from the early "Laugh-O-Grams" Disney made in Kansas City in the early '20s, through "The Gummi Bears" and "The Great Mouse Detective." Although he cites an overabundance of British reviews, Grant's book will prove useful to libraries, film students--and people who own the Disney edition of "Trivial Pursuit."
Further accounts of Disney's creations can be found in Disneyland: Inside Story by Randy Bright (Abrams: $35; 240 pp.; 230 illustrations, 150 in color). Bright's prose is no more than adequate, but the photographs of attractions that no longer exist in the park give this volume a special, nostalgic appeal.
And as Santa was heard to cry out as he left a major book store (pausing to give the stack of Jackie Collins novels a shove), "Merry Christmas to all and to all a 'good read'!"