Critic's picks that'll make great niche gifts

Compiling a gift-books roundup is almost as good as Christmas morning: cracking open sumptuous, enticing and informative volumes and then visualizing who might love them.

What follows is an idiosyncratic list — reflecting certain personal obsessions (books, crafts, collectibles, maps, nature and Legos, because I have 10,000 tiny plastic bricks stored in my garage). It's organized from "A" (architecture) to "P" (pure fun).



How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Ecclesiastical Architecture by Denis R. McNamara (Rizzoli, $17.95). The perfect pocket-size companion for wandering around old churches, here or abroad: McNamara's elegant line drawings are accompanied by clear explanations of church styles and symbols. Campaniles, reliquaries and clerestories explained.


The Annotated Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, edited with an introduction and notes by Maria Tatar (Norton, $39.95). The latest in Harvard scholar Tatar's annotated editions of childhood and folktale classics, this handsome book traces Barrie's myriad influences, including back stories for the main characters, and examines how remarkably persistent the tale of Peter, Wendy and the Lost Boys has proved since Peter and Wendy was first published in 1911.

Ex Libris: The Art of Bookplates by Martin Hopkinson (Yale University Press, $25). This compact volume traces the 500-year history of the bookplate, those decorative labels pasted inside a book's cover that discreetly declare ownership. There's a book plate designed by Rudyard Kipling for a friend; there's Calvin Coolidge's bookplate. For more information on the resurgence of this genteel art, go to

Books: A Living History by Martyn Lyons (Getty Publications, $24.95). A beautifully illustrated, must-have volume for any book lover; the story of books, from Sumerian cuneiform tablets to the e-book. Lyons, an eminent book historian, casts his net worldwide: While bibliophiles in the developed world wonder what forms the future book might take, the developing world still relies on the traditional book, which is "portable, durable and reusable, and it needs no batteries or maintenance or subscription payments of any kind."

Crafts and domestic

The Knitting Book: Yarns, Techniques, Stitches, Patterns by Frederica Patmore and Vikki Haffenden (DK Publishing, $40). Our office knitting expert's opinion: This is a great reference for anyone with a basic knowledge of knitting who wants to take the craft to the next step. Features DK's signature crisp design, beautiful photography and crystal-clear instructional text.

Dish: 813 Colorful, Wonderful Dinner Plates by Shax Riegler (Artisan, $35). Anyone who perks up when Antiques Roadshow features dishware would salivate over this sumptuously photographed volume, which tells the story of classic dish manufacturers such as Meissen and Wedgewood and brings the story forward into the age of the dinner-plate classics, Homer Laughlin and Noritaki. Riegler is the features editor at House Beautiful magazine.


The Louvre: All the Paintings by several contributors (Black Dog & Leventhal, $75). A great reference for any art or art-history aficionado, although to get all the paintings in, many are reproduced in a, um, compact manner. Combine this gift with the eye-popping, muscle-building Monumental Paris by Herve Champollion and Aude de Tocqueville (Vendome Press, $150), a 1-by-1½ -foot collection of more than 200 panoramic images of the City of Light's delights, and there's no telling what kind of gratitude you're likely to get.


Oxford Atlas of the World, 18th Edition (Oxford University Press, $89.95). The venerable Oxford University Press says it's the only publisher that hits the "refresh" button annually by issuing an updated world atlas. This one is chock-full of new satellite imagery, new sections on new countries (South Sudan) and burgeoning issues such as international shipping piracy. Essential World Atlas, 6th Edition (Oxford University Press, $24.95 paperback) is a condensed and more affordable version of the OUP view of the world.

Maps by Paula Scher (Princeton Architectural Press, $50). Scher, a renowned graphic designer (she designed Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town album cover) paints maps that are a cross between geography and the Rev. Howard Finster's folk art: a dizzying array of words and lines that evoke the zeitgeist of whatever area she's mapping.


Into the Blue: American Writing on Aviation and Spaceflight, edited by Joseph J. Corn (Library of America, $40). A classy collection of writings on air and space travel, from Benjamin Franklin's firsthand accounts of the first hot-air balloons (1783) to astronaut Buzz Aldrin's magnificent moonwalk (1969) to Mark Bowden's account of the air war in Afghanistan (2001-02).

The Untold Civil War: Exploring the Human Side of War by James Robertson, edited by Neil Kagan (National Geographic, $40). This book distinguishes itself from others published for the war's sesquicentennial through its focus on everyday stories, from Gen. Ulysses Grant's "hatred of the sight of blood" to a tale of two brothers, one Confederate, one Union, reunited as they lay dying on the battlefield. Artfully illustrated with paintings, documents and ephemera of the time.

The Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War by Margaret E. Wagner (Little, Brown, $35) offers a beautifully illustrated day-by-day account of the nation's most traumatic conflict.

Castles: A History of Fortified Structures Ancient, Medieval & Modern, consulting editor Charles Stephenson (St. Martin's Griffin, $29.99). This book should really have been titled Fortifications because it's a history of fortifications of all kinds: forts, towers, castles and kremlins, all over the world. Expertly designed with numerous photos, maps and schemata, it would please the armchair military historian in your family, or someone who just can't accept that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is over.

The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott: Unseen Images from the Legendary Antarctic Expedition by David M. Wilson (Little Brown, $35). A haunting collection of crystal-clear, beautifully composed photographs of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's final, ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic — many taken by Scott himself. Rediscovered after gathering dust for decades in the basement of a photographic agency, these images will beguile anyone interested in photography, exploration or the human will to survive.

Nature and natural history

Solar System: A Visual Exploration of the Planets, Moons, and Other Heavenly Bodies that Orbit Our Sun by Marcus Chown (Black Dog & Leventhal, $29.95). This book began as an app, "Solar System for iPad," and then turned into a book; a sort of reverse transition that its creators claim is a first. It's an abundantly organized and illustrated guide to all the moons, planets and stars that comprise our solar system. Chown is a former Caltech astronomer. Fun facts: Today's sunlight is 30,000 years old; the planet Uranus was originally called George.

Frozen Planet: A World Beyond Imagination by Alastair Fothergill and Vanessa Berlowitz (Firefly, $39.95). This mind-bending book is the companion volume to the forthcoming Discovery Channel series Frozen Planet, the third installment to the BBC's fabulous Planet Earth series. It renders the Antarctic and Arctic in stunning photos, including images from the previously restricted Russian Arctic.

Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine by Piotr Naskrecki (University of Chicago Press, $45). This is Harvard-based entomologist Naskrecki's love song to "relics," so-called living fossils (the helmeted katydid!) that have existed unchanged for eons. Also in this showcase book of exotic plants and animals is a plea to preserve what's left of the planet's evolutionary history. I came across one blogger (at Scientific American) who said the book is hard to read because the photos are so distractingly, achingly gorgeous.

Pure fun

The Cult of Lego by John Baichtal and Joe Meno (No Starch Press, $39.95). This fascinating book explores the popularity of Lego bricks worldwide and its evolution from child's toy to art medium to technology generator. See Yankee Stadium and the Dome of the Rock in Legos. Stephen Colbert and Sitting Bull, re-created in Legos. Fresh from New Zealand, a Lego robot called a "Swimming Pool Insect Terminator." There's something terrifically inspiring about all this, though I'm not sure what.