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By John Wilson


Not Just Looking

Books for the eye.

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In the Museum Without Walls, a book on the cave paintings from Lascaux sits atop Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture (Chronicle—and a splendid book, by the way). Sometime in the not-too-distant future, perhaps, images from the vast archive of humanity will be viewed in a different form, but in the long, sumptuous twilight of the Age of the Book, we are surrounded by volumes so abundant, so incomprehensibly varied, that to contemplate even a few of them is dizzying.

Here are a few that caught my eye in particular. There's still time for last-minute Christmas shopping—and of course if you find a bookish giftcard in your stocking on Christmas morning, you might want to have this list handy. You might also want to put in a word for a book or two at your public library, where the bounty is shared.

Once again Yale University Press maintained its place as the preeminent publisher of art books. Of the many outstanding volumes they issued in 2005, one of my favorites was Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings. If you share my fascination with drawing, I should mention that one of the books from my Top Ten list a year ago, Peter Steinhart's The Undressed Art: Why We Draw (Knopf), is now available in paperback from Vintage. Also on the drawing shelf for 2005: Gehry Draws, edited by Mark Rappolt and Robert Violette (MIT Press), a superbly designed volume devoted to the drawing of architect Frank Gehry; and The Essence of Line: French Drawing from Ingres to Degas (Penn State Univ. Press).

I wasn't able to get to New York to see the Fra Angelico exhibition, but the next best thing is the catalogue, Fra Angelico, by Laurence Kanter and Pia Palladino (Yale Univ. Press). These tableau-like paintings don't have the obvious obduracy of much contemporary art, yet they have to be studied before they can be seen, unless the "seeing" is merely an act of cultural devotion. It's striking how often, even today, centuries removed from the Christendom of the angelic friar, art seems to draws its energies, whether in resistance or homage or something of both, from the vocabulary of faith, the idioms of the sacred. Consider, for example, Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, by Michael Auping (Prestel), which traces the arc of the contemporary German artist.

If you are a lover of broadsides, you won't want to miss Extraordinary Exhibitions (Quantuck Lane/Norton), a weird and wonderful collection drawn from sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay's personal collection. And Don Yoder's The Pennsylvania German Broadside: A History and Guide (Penn State Univ. Press) is both visually enticing and a window into a neglected patch of American cultural history. (I won't be surprised to find images from both of these volumes turning up on CD covers.)

I mentioned that recently I've been reading a lot about insects. One source (not limited to insects) has been Piotr Naskrecki's The Smaller Majority (Harvard Univ. Press), with page after page of astonishing photos of a world we pass by unaware. That book came to my desk with Infinite Voyage: An Illustrated Voyage to Planets Beyond Our Sun, by Ray Villard and Lynette R. Cook (Univ. of California Press). Somewhere between the very large and the very small is the zone where humans feel at home, and yet we are able—with the aid of such guides—to enter these strange realms. Not only able, in fact, but restless if confined to what seems our "natural" space.

May you read and look with laughter and sadness, with wonder and joy, with expectation and surprise.

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.

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