One Man's Obsessions

Kenneth Turan is interim book editor of The Times

"So you're the book editor," new acquaintances tend to say, if they decide it's worth talking to me at all. Then comes the look, half-challenging, half-envious, and the inevitable kicker, "You get to keep all the books, don't you?"

Much as I hate to shatter the world's illusions, the answer, in words of one syllable, is no. In the first place, the books by and large go to the reviewers, to the staff, to various charities and assorted estimable establishments.

In the second place, most of the books that turn up are those that nobody with even a vestige of sanity would want. In recent weeks, copies of "Daily Readings With St. Isaac of Syria," "Famous Precognitive and Problem-Solving Dreams" and "Elephant Hunting in Portuguese East Africa" have floated through the section, and I have not noticed a great rush on the part of anyone to claim them.

And finally, as Jeff Goldblum's character in "Between The Lines" said when asked if rock 'n' roll was here to stay: "Not in my house. There's no room." Yes, I've just had new shelves installed in two separate offices, not to mention the ones that we built into the new addition, but no amount of space is enough for a book person. When a wire service story appeared a few years ago about a woman who was crushed to death when her books collapsed on her, well-meaning friends across the country sent me a slew of copies. And a bookstore-owner friend of mine pointedly told me about a friend of his whose wife walked out on him after uttering these chilling last words: "Let your books cook breakfast for you."

When the holiday season rolls around, however, I have to admit my resolve weakens a bit. I tend to have pity on those poor publishers slaving away in tiny offices in the hopes that their elaborate gift books will find favor in someone's eyes. Maybe, I tell myself, I could make room for just one. Or two. Just as a public service. Oh, the hell with it, how about a full baker's dozen. Not carefully chosen. Not a cross-section of anything. Just a personal, idiosyncratic look at the books I couldn't resist. For instance:

Christo: The Pont-Neuf Wrapped (Harry N. Abrams: $85). If ever there was an artist made to order for the Christmas season, it would be Christo, the man who has wrapped more objects than any elf in Santa's workshop. It may have taken him 10 years to plan and execute the covering of the oldest bridge in Paris with 444,000 square feet of woven polyamide fabric and 36,300 feet of rope, but you couldn't visit the site (as three million did) in the fall of 1985 without thinking it was worth all that time and effort. For those who couldn't make the trip, this book is as authoritative a record of the struggle and success as anyone would want, even including a piece of the very fabric Christo used for the daring deed.

The Spirited Earth by Victoria Ginn (Rizzoli: $60). Photographer Ginn has done more than travel extensively throughout Asia and the Pacific, making a vivid photographic record of exotic ritual dances: She has so entered into these events that looking at her pictures transports us into the very essence of these mysterious performances. A book to send shivers through your soul.

Amish: The Art of the Quilt, text by Robert Hughes, plate commentary by Julie Silber (Alfred A. Knopf: $100). One of the largest of the Christmas books, with pages nearly 14 inches square. This vibrant collection of 82 quilts made between 1870 and 1950 in a boggling variety of color combinations by the women of Lancaster County, Pa., looks as daring as anything a museum of modern art could muster.

Survivors, photographs and text by James Balog (Harry N. Abrams: $49.50). Maybe you think you've seen and heard enough about endangered species. Maybe the words Himalayan Black Bear and Atlantic Green Sea Turtle bring a yawn to your lips. Maybe you even think that the animal photograph that could hold your attention has yet to be taken. Well, this delightful collection is about to prove you wrong, wrong, wrong. By using unexpected backdrops and a determinedly off-center attitude, Balog has come up with a book of bestial portraits that will charm even the most reluctant viewer.

Jocks and Nerds by Richard Martin and Harold Koda (Rizzoli: $45). No matter how sui generis you may think your personal style is, if you're a man and you wear clothes, these two authorities from the Fashion Institute of Technology have got your number. Dividing all of 20th-Century male fashion into a dozen social roles, everything from Rebel to Man About Town, Martin and Koda not only provide clever analysis and information about the origin of various garments, they also have proved their points with an intriguing array of illustrations, allowing us to see, for instance, a kinship we may never have suspected between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Claus von Bulow.

Angkor: The Hidden Glories by Michael Freeman and Roger Warner (Houghton Mifflin: $45). If ever there was a spot in the world whose very name conjures up images of the romance and achievements of long-dead civilizations it is Angkor Wat, the elaborate 9th-Century temple complex in the jungles of western Cambodia. Though Angkor was closed to visitors for almost two decades due to that country's civil war, this pair of journalists found a way in and braved mines, grenades and artillery barrages to capture its glorious semi-overgrown splendor.

The Venetian Ghetto by Roberta Curiel and Bernard Dov Cooperman (Rizzoli: $40). Though most visitors to Venice don't know it, the city is the home to Europe's first Jewish ghetto, founded in 1516 on the site of a foundry which gave the quarter its name. Surrounded by water, enclosed by a wall with but one exit gate, the ghetto encompassed both grand, ornate synagogues funded by wealthy merchants and teeming, eight-story tenements that attempted to contain the area's burgeoning population.

The Story of Kodak by Douglas Collins (Abrams: $49.50). Placing the possibilities of photography squarely in the hands of everyone was the almost exclusive doing of George Eastman, who replaced cumbersome glass negatives with infinitely more portable film and came up with the idea of returning same to the factory for processing. This book, a felicitous mixture of scholarly text and unusual and unexpected photographs, is as much a history of the medium as of the company that promoted it.

Posters of the Belle Epoque by Jack Rennert (Wine Spectator Press/Rizzoli: $75). With their brighter-than-bright colors and eye-catching design, posters lend themselves quite nicely to the gift-book format, thank you very much, and this collection, though it does not break any new ground, is exceptionally beautifully printed and does cover the creme de la creme of the golden age of the poster, an era which began in the 1890s and ended with the First World War. For those with a taste for this kind of thing but a more limited budget, the Complete Masters of the Poster, edited by Stuart Applebaum (Dover: $29.95), covers much of the same ground quite nicely, albeit as a humble paperback.

The Random House Encyclopedia (Random House: $129.95). Weighing in at 12 pounds 5 ounces and arriving in a large box of the size usually reserved for laundry soap, this hefty item is positively brimming with all the information that can be contained in 3 million words, 13,500 illustrations and 2,912 pages. Though its division into sections called Colorpedia and Alphapedia (not to mention the Time Chart and World Atlas) may seem a bit arbitrary, this encyclopedia has to be the most deliciously browsable book of the year. Open it to any of its thousands of full-color two-page spreads and just try and put it down. Instead you'll invariably lose yourself in the cozy thrill of knowledge, a feeling that will, if you are any kind of book person at all, bring back memories of the time when you first discovered just how fascinating what is contained between the covers of a book can be.

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