Books are a great gift. But coffee-table books are especially wonderful in the cool, dark days of winter, because they can take you to another place or inspire the new year ahead in a different way than a novel or biography can. With their large-format images, they are a visual adventure, as well as a literary one.
And in an era when our visual culture has increasingly moved online, it's a refreshing time away from the onslaught of pop-up windows and auto-play videos to consider and enjoy printed images on a physical page. Here are few books that combine plenty of great reading with illustrations or photographs.
The new "Atlas Obscura" book, based on the popular website, includes 600 of the world's strangest and most interesting places, and the bite-sized descriptions make it easy to gobble down lots of entries in one sitting. The book is divided into sections, each corresponding to a different part of the world, so you can choose a continent (or an area within a country) and start exploring. Or, flip to a random page in the book, or read it back-to-front. It's perfect for anyone who likes weird stuff, from the geological to the artistic, from the holy to the profane; and the fanciful to the historical. Geography nerds will like exploring via the maps with location details indicated.
"In the Company of Women" is Grace Bonney's celebration of women entrepreneurs. The founder of the beloved Design Sponge blog, Bonney has been immersed in the maker and small-business community for years, and she has hand-picked a wonderfully interesting and diverse group of women to feature here. Large portraits accompany each interview and many of them reveal the trials and challenges of running a creative-focused business, including perspectives from writers and poets, ceramists, painters, cartoonists and others. It's a truly inspiring book for anyone who owns a business or wants to.
"The New Bohemians" is, as befits its subject, jam-packed with color, pattern and creative design. But it's comprehensive, too — each home depicted shows plenty of detail. (Many decor books only show a couple of images from each home, and you really need more than that to understand how a real home fits together.) Large images of rooms are paired with small details, which also enables the reader to understand how to make a room come together with eclectic style, just as author and blogger Justina Blakeney does. Some of the homes profiled in the book belong to people with many resources, both in terms of cash to spend on their homes and access to beautiful things. But plenty of the abodes have been put together by those with limited means, which is one of the true beauties of bohemian style — it can be achieved (sometimes more successfully) with thrift-store, homemade, and recycled/upcycled pieces. At the end of each home, instructions for DIY projects highlight how you can achieve some of the style within.
"The Aloha Shirt" tackles a subject that would seem unable to support a whole book on the topic. But it most certainly does — and with plenty of style and American history to boot. Author Dale Hope is a second-generation Hawaiian shirt maker, and he gives an inside look into one of the most thoroughly American pieces of clothing by delving into interviews, old advertisements and catalogs, and his own stash of memorabilia to give the book shape and plenty of charming detail. There are pages and pages of close-ups of vintage Hawaiian shirts, and it's fun to study the details, but it's the history of Hawaii alongside this theme that makes this book a deep dive and an escape read at the same time.
Usually art photography books are low on text and sometimes, context. But "TreeGirl: Intimate Encounters with Wild Nature" includes both, combining beautiful images of unclothed women in ancient and unique trees with the natural history, ethnobotany, science and conservation of those trees. These are not sexualized nude images in the least, and many don't reveal anything that would be considered NSFW. Models are a variety of age and size, as the focus is really on the way the bodies highlight or accentuate the trees. Shot in 13 different countries on four continents, the stars of the book are the trees, and many are hundreds of years old. Photographer and author Arbor details characteristics, traditional uses (including what's edible from the tree and how it fits into the art and ceremony of the places it exists), whether tree species is threatened or not, and lots of other related information for each of the photographs.
"Natural Color" is botanical dye expert Sasha Duerr's beautiful exploration of the world of plant-based colors, brimming with lovingly photographed plants and textiles. It is also (even if you never dye so much as a handkerchief), an instructional book that details how you can create your own naturally colored pillow cases, napkins, scarf, tote bag, or even a Rothko-inspired painting. Chapters are divided by season, including what plants are available during that time, and the back of the book includes more botanical and technical details so you can use this book as a primer to the world of dying with plants — or a way to further the knowledge you already have.