The best coffee-table books are like a bag of movie popcorn: You start out thinking you'll just take a quick taste, and before you know it you've been nibbling for two hours.
That's certainly the case with James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, $49.95), a book chock-full of interviews, photos, and 007 memorabilia. Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Bond's creation by author Ian Fleming--and to hype the opening of Die Another Day, Bond flick No. 22--it's a fun nostalgia trip with numerous anecdotes about the Bond movies. Paul McCartney, for instance, was such a big fan that he ran out and bought an Aston Martin DB5 after seeing Bond drive the car in the 1964 film, Goldfinger.
The Irish: A Photohistory (Thames & Hudson, $40) covers the harsh century that started with the famine of the 1840s--a period during which Ireland's population fell by more than a third, to just five million. The historical photos, starting with beautiful hand-tinted daguerreotype portraits from the mid-1800s, are fascinating and often moving. The images of lynchings, slavery, and other injustices in Freedom: A Photographic History of the African American Struggle (Phaidon, $59.95) also are disturbing. The book ends in the era of Oprah and Colin Powell, illustrating sharply how much has changed.
Another of the many fine photo histories is Explorations: Great Moments of Discovery From the Royal Geographical Society (Artisan, $35). It documents British exploration over the past 150 years with text by such luminaries as Sir Edmund Hillary and Richard Leakey. What makes this book a keeper are the more than 300 photos of an astonishing variety of places and native peoples as they are first being visited by outsiders. Dorothea Lange: The Heart and Mind of a Photographer (Bulfinch Press, $75) is a crisp overview of the career of the great photographer who is noted for documenting the ravages of poverty. Migrant Mother, her most famous image, was shot in 1936, but she continued to take socially conscious photos in the U.S. and developing world until her death in 1965.
Afghanistan: The Land that Was (Abrams, $45) shows why so many travelers fell in love with that nation before it was ravaged by war, Soviet occupation, and the repressive Taliban government. Photographers Roland and Sabrina Michaud roamed Afghanistan from 1964 to 1978, taking beautiful photos of the nation's mountainous terrain and tribal peoples.
A good gift for budding artists is Art: The World of Art, from Aboriginal to American Pop, Renaissance Masters to Postmodernism (Watson-Guptill, $50). It includes a breezy overview of art history, as well as an A-to-Z listing of nearly 400 artists with a reproduction of a key work of each.
Any art lover who hasn't seen the Sistine Chapel since the restoration of the frescoes there will be amazed by the lush reds, greens, and ultramarine blues in Michelangelo: The Frescoes of the Sistine Chapel (Abrams, $39.95). The expressiveness of the faces and beauty of the clothing and tapestry in these Biblical scenes are breathtaking. Pieter Breugel (Abrams, $49.95) incorporates the latest scholarship on the great Renaissance painter. The horrific images in paintings such as The Triumph of Death seem almost contemporary in the way they anticipate the horrors of modern warfare.
The Architecture of Philip Johnson (Bulfinch Press, $85) shows how far the great architect ranged beyond his skyscrapers. Whether it's his famous Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., the soaring Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., or museums such as the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, Neb., his designs are surprising and innovative.
An excellent gift for theater aficionados is Playbill's At This Theatre: 100 Years of Broadway Shows, Stories & Stars (Applause, $35), which provides anecdotal histories of all the major Broadway theaters. This edition updates the original 1984 version to include the 1990s renaissance when many theaters were restored. For the wine lover on your gift list, try Oz Clarke's New Wine Atlas (Harcourt, $60), which analyzes the world's major wine-growing areas. It's invaluable in deciphering wine labels.
A macho nostalgia trip to rival the Bond book is The Harley-Davidson Century (MBI Publishing, $50), a photo-filled appreciation of Harley motorcycles and the company that makes them. There's a lot of business history, and the Harley mystique is heavily analyzed, too. There's even an excerpt from Hunter S. Thompson's famous 1967 book about the Hell's Angels. As with most coffee-table books, give it to the right person and the recipient will be in hog heaven. By Thane Peterson