Some of the best presents you can give to people over the holidays, or give yourself, are lavish books.
I’m not talking about normal books, even the nice hardbacks from the display rack at Barnes & Noble. I mean beautifully crafted, very expensive books that will last a lifetime. Such books, only offered by special publishers, stand like totems against the ephemera of the digital age. Their craftsmanship feels solid in the hand—or hands if they are big enough—and they make for meaningful presents.
I rely on three publishers when buying expensive books for the holidays: the Folio Society, Taschen, and Fantagraphics.
The Folio Society was founded in 1947, in the aftermath of World War II, with a mission to create “editions of the world’s greatest literature in a format worthy of the contents.” Folio has long specialized in classic literature such as works by Jane Austen, Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, but in recent years, the Society has published more and more science fiction and fantasy. Folio’s books are enthralling to hold and amazing to look at. Their own self-description is accurate: “For each book, our production and editorial teams consider typography, illustrative content, paper stock and printing methods, and of course, bindings that stand out, in materials ranging from cloth and buckram, to luxury paper and leather. We also commission introductions from leading contemporary writers to enhance many of our editions, be it in fiction, history, science, children’s literature, poetry, philosophy, travel or other genres.” My favorite Folio release in 2017 was their gorgeous edition of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune.
Fantagraphics Books, headquartered in Seattle, is the premier publisher of independent graphic novels and classic comics. Fantagraphics produces fantastic collections of Peanuts, Disney’s classic Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck comics, and contemporary artists of all types and persuasions. My favorite reissue this year was the Prince Valiant series. Prince Valiant, which is still running, was created in 1937 by Hal Foster (1892-1982). These are exquisitely drawn tales that celebrate chivalry, adventure, bravery, and gentlemanly romance. The Fantagraphics reprints also offer a lot of extra stuff—interviews with historians, original artwork, as well as interviews with Foster himself, who rarely talked to the press.
Finally, there is Taschen, the publisher of lavish books about art, music, and American culture. My favorite Taschen release this year is National Geographic: The United States of America, a massive, gorgeously illustrated book that offers a state-by-state tour of the country over the past 100 years. Collecting over 700 images from the archives of National Geographic, the book chronicles everything from the jazz bars of New Orleans, the ski slopes of Colorado, the Hollywood Hills, the streets of Manhattan, a river baptism in Mississippi, and much more. Photographs span the history of the image from early black-and-white and autochrome exposures from the 1920s and 1930s, to mid-century Kodachrome, and finally, the digital images of the 1990s up to the present. The pictures include vistas like the Grand Canyon and the big sky country of Montana as well as more intimate moments—a couple walking down the boardwalk in Atlantic City, a woman holding up postcards from the back of a car, a country store in the South.
There are also pictures that indicate the struggles America has gone through, particularly around issues of race. There is a powerful 1988 photograph by Jim Richardson of a boarded-up shop front in Atlanta. The boards are marked with graffiti and statements like, “Learn to teach yourself,” and “Respect our history, be black, be proud.” “Messages of positivity grace the streetscape in Sweet Auburn, Georgia, birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. and traditional center of Atlanta’s black community,” explains the caption.
At a time when more and more of life seems focused on convenience, speed, and disposability, it’s nice to see publishers like these continuing their commitment to making works of quality and craftsmanship—and celebrating books that last a lifetime.
Image: The Folio Society Product Page