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Originally published Sunday, December 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Reference and coffee-table books for everyone on your list

Books on Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, The New York Times and the human body top our list of gift books this season.

Seattle Times book editor

Maybe it's all the teachers perched in my family tree, but I love books that make learning something new go down easy. The following volumes on this recommended-for-giving list are beautifully designed and artfully edited, but their common thread is this: They serve up knowledge of the past, present and future to their lucky recipients. Here's a list of my favorite gift books for the holidays, 2008 version:

Celebrities and presidents

"The American Journey of Barack Obama" By the editors of Life Magazine, foreword by Senator Edward Kennedy (Little,Brown,$24.99).

An exceedingly handsome volume of photographs documenting the Life of Obama thus far, from his childhood through the summer of 2008 (no election-night photos — it was published in October). Includes a helpful family tree with mug shots, and an essay, "The Cultural Challenge of Barack Obama," by author and UW professor Charles Johnson.

"Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon" By Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt & Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., introduction by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Knopf, $50).

A fascinating consideration of "the myths, memories and questions" that accumulated around Lincoln between his assassination in 1865 and the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. The Kunhardts are the fourth and fifth generations of the family of Frederick Hill Meserve, a collector who in 1902 single-handedly rescued 15,000 glass negatives from the studio of famed 19th-century Civil War photographer Mathew Brady that were about to be trashed, including seven photographs of Lincoln.

"Vanity Fair: The Portraits — A Century of Iconic Images" By Graydon Carter and the editors of Vanity Fair (Abrams, $65).

The highbrow celebrity-gawking magazine has always commissioned the best photographers going. This volume features oddly appropriate pairings of celebrities old and new: Annie Leibovitz's portrait of Rupert Murdoch (1994) is paired with Edward Steichen's famous portrait of J. Pierpont Morgan (1903). Madonna (1996) is featured with her 1934 twin, Jean Harlow; Tony Bennett (2006) tickles the keys with George Gershwin (1927). The more things change, etc.

Natural history/history

"The Weather of the Pacific Northwest" By Cliff Mass (UniversityofWashingtonPress,$29.95).

Our varied weather explained in engaging fashion, with dramatic photographs and informative charts, by University of Washington professor and KUOW commentator. Look for Mass' interview with Seattle Times science reporter Sandi Doughton in the Dec. 1 NWL section or at www.seattletimes.com (search "Cliff Mass").

"Charles Darwin: The Beagle Letters, 1831-1836" Edited by Frederick Burkhardt (Cambridge University Press, $32).

For the natural-history geek — Darwin's letters from his historic voyage 'round the world are reminiscent of the you-are-there quality of the journals of Lewis and Clark. The charming illustrations are by Conrad Martens, a British landscape painter who went along for the ride.

"A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward" Edited by Alana Newhouse, introduction by Pete Hamill (W.W.Norton,$29.95).

If your relatives made their way through New York's lower East Side on their way west, this is a perfect gift — the life and times of this vibrant community as chronicled by the newspaper that covered it, from 1897 forward. Drawn from a treasure trove of old photographs, letters, keepsakes and documents the Forward's staff discovered "on the eve of the newspaper's 100th anniversary."

"Leathernecks: An Illustrated History of the United States Marine Corps" By Merrill L. Bartlett and Jack Sweetman (Naval Institute Press, $60).

A sumptuously illustrated account of the history of America's "soldiers from the sea," from their beginnings in 1775 to the current war in Iraq. Author Bartlett is a Vashon Island resident.

Reference

"The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages, 1851-2008" (Black Dog & Leventhal, $60).

This stunning volume is like having a library reading room in your own home. It reproduces more than 300 notable New York Times front pages (including the report from the Gettysburg battlefield). Plus a three-DVD set of all The New York Times front pages from 1851 through 2008, plus indexing and online links to complete articles. Plus a magnifying glass, which you are going to need; people's eyes must have been sharper in the olden days.

"Scrapbooks: An American History" By Jessica Helfand (Yale University Press, $45).

This compulsively readable (and viewable) book documents the story of the American scrapbook. Helfand, a graphic designer, was a graduate student at Yale in the late 1980s when she discovered "something emotionally vivid and passionate and real" about scrapbooks. These treasure chests of lives and the ephemera left in their wake tuck away everything from photos to hair samples to hotel keys to letters torn up in anger and stashed inside an envelope ... for posterity to reassemble.

"The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body" By David Macaulay (Houghton Mifflin, $35).

This field guide to humanity's innards and outards is supposed to be for children, and MacArthur "genius" grant award-winner Macaulay's drawings have a fanciful, lighthearted touch. But adults will enjoy it, too — witness the runaway success of Macaulay's previous books such as "Cathedral," "City" and "Castle."

"The Encyclopedia of Earth: A Complete Visual Guide"(UniversityofCaliforniaPress,$39.95).

A well-designed, graphics-heavy (1,700 color photographs) reference to the history of life on the planet. Written by a panel of authorities top-heavy with academic degrees, the information is nonetheless digestible and easy to track down, thanks to the index (aardvark to Zu, the Akkadian god of storms and darkness).

"Dictionary of Euphemisms: How Not to Say What You Mean," By R.W. Holder (OxfordUniversityPress,$14.95).

Perhaps the single most useful volume you could give the management trainee or aspiring politician in the family. Arranged both thematically ("Additions, affairs of state, bodily functions") and alphabetically by word. Includes such handy phrases such as "economically inactive" (unemployed), and charmingly indirect descriptions of mischief like "parallel parking" (having a mistress) and "soft commission" (a bribe).

Make-believe

"The Mythic Bestiary: The Illustrated Guide to the World's Most Fantastical Creatures" By Tony Allan (DuncanBairdPublishers,$29.95).

If you have lovers of fantasy, young or old, on your list, this compendium of fantastic creatures through the ages will clue them in to many of J.K. Rowling's sources of inspiration. Maybe you've heard of the thunderbird, but how about the strix, an owllike creature thought by the Romans to be a "supernatural creature of the night that preyed on human flesh and foretold doom"? For comic relief, try the pooka, "a shape-shifter who took animal form as a horse, bull or goat to plague drunkards. "

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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