When it comes to gift books, I find myself drawn to some unorthodox choices this year. At the head of my list is Joe Sacco’s “The Great War” (W.W. Norton, boxed, $35): a single panoramic drawing — 24 feet long, and accordion-folded in a slipcase — that portrays, in graphic intensity, one of the bloodiest events of the 20th century, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
And yet, in its ingenuity, its beauty and (yes) its tactile engagement, it stirs us in a variety of dimensions: the book as objet d’art. This is the secret story of the digital era, that computer production has opened the possibilities of what books are and how we connect with them, not only on screen but also on the page.
“The Great War” is just one of a number of projects this holiday season that provoke us to think about books differently than we might otherwise. Some are almost traditionally rendered, such as Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura’s ambitious “A True Novel” (Other Press, boxed, $29.95 paper). It is published as a two-volume boxed set including photographs and inspired, in some sense, by “Wuthering Heights,” while also raising questions about where the line between fiction and remembrance lies.
Others fall into a more elusive territory between book and artwork, not unlike the one Sacco has staked out. J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s “S.” (Mulholland, $35) works as something of a book within a book: stuffed with letters, margin notes, telegrams and other bits of ephemera, in which the narrative — an adventure story involving two readers who interact with each other as they read and comment on the novel’s pages — unfolds as a puzzle, not unlike Abrams’ TV show “Lost.”
Ander Nilsen’s “Rage of Poseidon” (Drawn & Quarterly, unpaged, $29.95) which has its roots in Greek and Christian mythologies, relies on an accordion-style presentation similar to “The Great War” — the volume unfolds as a series of full-page images in silhouette, with written text underneath — to bring a number of classic stories (Prometheus, Abraham and Issac, Leda and the Swan) up to date.
“Bacchus,” Nilsen writes in the title effort, which culminates with a spectacular act of divine vengeance, “apparently runs a nightclub in a new city on the other side of the world called ‘Las Vegas.’ … Venus works in a place called ‘Hollywood.’ Eros runs something called ‘the Internet.’” The collection concludes with Athena staring down a cop with an assault rifle and full body armor, as if to suggest that this world (if it ever did) no longer has any tolerance for gods.
Gods or no gods, there’s no question that we still want heroes, especially when we think they represent our better selves. That’s the appeal of “Acts Passed at a First Congress of the United States of America 1789" (Andrews McMeel, boxed, $75), a reproduction of a volume presented to George Washington after his first year as president, and listing all the laws passed by Congress — beginning with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — during that span.
This is a beautiful artifact: slipcased, with an accompanying pamphlet offering an accessible but detailed historical frame. Still, the real draw is the book itself (the original sold last year for $9.8 million to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Assn.), which features Washington’s marginalia and essentially establishes the infrastructure of American government: courts, salaries of executive officials, a provisional post office.
It’s an amazing set of accomplishments, all the more so when we realize that this first session of Congress lasted only six months, from March to September 1789. What would such a record by the current Congress look like? Would it even be possible to produce one? This is part of the attraction, the idea of looking back at a moment (and, perhaps, ahead to a future?) when we, as a political society anyway, believed we had a sense of common cause.