50 Super Smart Books For Everyone On Your List
There's nothing quite as surefire as the gift of a good book, but weeding through the many titles on bookstore shelves and in online stores can be overwhelming. Fear not, holiday shopper—we've got your back. We've compiled a list of our favorite books in a mix of all time bests and recent standouts. There's something for every reader, and we wouldn't blame you if you ended up with a few in the cart for yourself too.
1. FOR YOUR TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL SISTER:
STEP ASIDE, POPS: A HARK! A VAGRANT COLLECTION BY KATE BEATON
In the intro to this collection, Beaton writes: “When I get asked to describe my comics, the easiest thing to say is that it is historical or literary or pop-culture parodies.” That’s apt, but it fails to capture the silly, strange, smart, and joyful elements that emanate from Hark!. From taking jabs at William Bligh and Robespierre, to brilliantly parodying Wuthering Heights or the concept of “Strong Female Characters,” Beaton puts her clever and mirthful spin on an assortment of things you never imagined would send you into laughing fits.
WAR PLAN RED: THE UNITED STATES’ SECRET PLAN TO INVADE CANADA AND CANADA’S SECRET PLAN TO INVADE THE UNITED STATES BY KEVIN LIPPERT
Every once in a while, leaders of the two countries that sit along the world’s longest open border have eyed the territory on the other side as prime for an invasion. Lippert’s fascinating and frequently funny book details the moments when the countries’ relationship became a little strained, including details of Canada’s 1921 plan for attacking the United States and a full reproduction of “War Plan Red,” the 1935 American scheme to storm Canada. The details of Canada’s 1921 espionage excursion through New England alone are worth a purchase—find out what state’s men were characterized as “fat and lazy but pleasant and congenial!”
GENTLEMEN BOOTLEGGERS: THE TRUE STORY OF TEMPLETON RYE, PROHIBITION, AND A SMALL TOWN IN CAHOOTS BY BRYCE T. BAUER
Al Capone and his Chicago colleagues had nothing on the good people of Templeton, Iowa. When Prohibition sought to stamp out illicit drinking, bootlegger Joe Irlbeck and many of the town’s other 427 residents colluded to create a whiskey recipe so delicious and a network of hidden stills so ingenious that they cranked out thousands of gallons of regionally famous hooch each week while remaining on the right side of the law. Bauer’s riveting book is equally parts history lesson, crime caper, and portrait of small-town collaboration. Anyone who has tried their hand at homebrewing or snuck an extra bottle of duty free rum through customs will love this one.
THE MAP THIEF: THE GRIPPING STORY OF AN ESTEEMED RARE-MAP DEALER WHO MADE MILLIONS STEALING PRICELESS MAPS BY MICHAEL BLANDING
Blanding’s page-turner begins with a Yale librarian finding an X-Acto blade on the floor of a rare book library. Soon, it emerges that map dealer E. Forbes Smiley, who was famous for locating incredibly rare historical maps for his clients, had an ace up his sleeve: He was stealing them from some of the world’s leading schools and libraries. Blanding deftly shows why antiquarian maps matter to historians and collectors, before exploring how Smiley pulled off his audaciously low-tech heists and the lingering mysteries of what else he might have pinched.
TWO HOURS: THE QUEST TO RUN THE IMPOSSIBLE MARATHON BY ED CAESAR
Even if 2016 really is that year your friend finally runs a marathon, they’ll probably need a bit more than two hours to finish. Caesar lovingly profiles champion Kenyan runner Geoffrey Mutai as he and his elite brethren attempt to shave the last few minutes they need to shed to scale “running’s Everest”—blazing through 26.2 miles in under two hours. Along the way, Caesar chronicles the history of distance running and gets into the science, history, culture, and training regimens that can help answer the question many first-time marathon spectators have: What makes Kenyans such good runners? Knowing the answer may not make you any faster, but it’s a fun, fascinating read.
6. FOR YOUR FRIEND WITH A BUDDING INTEREST IN ODDITIES:
MR. WILSON’S CABINET OF WONDER: PRONGED ANTS, HORNED HUMANS, MICE ON TOAST, AND OTHER MARVELS OF JURASSIC TECHNOLOGY BY LAWRENCE WESCHLER
At Los Angeles’ Museum of Jurassic Technology, things aren’t always what they seem. It’s a collection of art, science, ethnographic, anthropological, and historical artifacts presented as much in the spirit of the “wonder cabinets” of the 16th century as in the spirit of a straightforward natural history museum. In this exploration of the place itself and the man who created it, Weschler illuminates the truth and wonder that can be found in the outlandish.
7. FOR YOUR LOVELORN ROOMMATE:
MODERN ROMANCE BY AZIZ ANSARI AND ERIC KLINENBERG
The perfect present for someone coming off a second or third binge of Master of None, this exploration of courtship in the modern era from comedian Aziz Ansari extends far beyond funny, though there’s plenty of that too. Ansari teamed up with sociologist Eric Klinenberg to tackle everything from online dating, to being monogamish, to “the generic ‘hey’ text,” to finding your soulmate. A comprehensive take on 21st century romance, and the perfect pairing of humorous anecdotes and actual social science.
8. FOR THE ENGLISH MAJOR WITH AN ANNOYING BREADTH OF KNOWLEDGE:
THE MILLIONAIRE AND THE BARD: HENRY FOLGER’S OBSESSIVE HUNT FOR SHAKESPEARE’S FIRST FOLIO BY ANDREA MAYS
Only 223 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio, the first collection of his complete theatrical works, are known to exist today. How did D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library end up with 82 of them? Thank this story’s titular millionaire, Henry Folger, who was born to nothing in Brooklyn and became one of the world’s great book buyers. A thrilling literary detective story about one of the most important books in history, and the obsession that saved it.
9. FOR YOUR FEMINIST MOTHER WHO COMPLAINS ABOUT ALL THESE SUPERHERO MOVIES:
THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN BY JILL LEPORE
The perfect entry point for someone who doesn’t yet know that the world of comic books is a fascinating place. Lepore—a professor of American history at Harvard University and a staffer at The New Yorker takes a fascinating look at the most popular female superhero of all time and illuminates much of the unknown history about how the character played a role in the women’s rights movement, as well as the life the man who created her, William Moulton Marston, who found inspiration in (among other things) his wife, his live-in mistress, Vargas girls, and birth control activist Margaret Sanger.
10. FOR YOUR LOVELY-BUT-LONELY NIECE:
JANE, THE FOX, & ME BY FANNY BRITT
This award-winning graphic novel is ostensibly for children, but thoughtful adults will find themselves in its pages, too. Jane, the Fox, & Me tells the story of Hélène, an outcast middle schooler who takes refuge in the pages of Jane Eyre. Hélène’s tale is spun quietly, through soft pencil strokes and splashes of color that mirror her struggles, comforts, and, eventually, her hope.
11. FOR YOUR ARTSY GENIUS COUSIN:
RADIOACTIVE: MARIE & PIERRE CURIE: A TALE OF LOVE AND FALLOUT BY LAUREN REDNISS
As reviewers have noted, Radioactive defies simple categorization. The 2010 book is a graphic novel; a biography of Marie and Pierre Curie; a history of radioactivity; a work of art; and a labor of wonder. The author’s fascination for her subject is obvious, and permeates each page with glowing energy. (Hot tip: Take this book into a dark room and see what happens.)
12. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO’S A LITTLE BIT COUNTRY AND A LITTLE BIT ROCK ‘N ROLL:
PRODUCING COUNTRY: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE GREAT RECORDINGS BY MICHAEL JARRETT
What exactly does a music producer do? Michael Jarrett’s stunning oral history traverses the decades of country music to answer that question. These jacks-of-all-trades help pick the perfect songs for each artist, assemble an optimal band of session musicians, and shape raw talents into proven hit makers. Each entry in this comprehensive, fast-paced volume shares an insider’s story behind a classic album or track to illuminate how it was made. Even if you’re not a big country fan, the book deftly navigates the places where early country intersected with rock and pop in unexpected ways—look for cameos from unexpected artists like Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, and Al Green. And if you’re already a fan of Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, or Clint Black, you’ll learn a lot about how your favorite songs came to sound the way they do.
13. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO’S ALWAYS GETTING STRANDED AT THE AIRPORT:
ENDURANCE: SHACKLETON’S INCREDIBLE VOYAGE BY ALFRED LANSING
No matter how arduous your journey home for the holidays is, it’s sure to be a breeze compared to the Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition that launched in 1914. The attempt to sail to Antarctica and then cross the snowy continent was a complete fiasco. Their ship, Endurance, got caught in ice and sank, leaving the 28-man team to fight for survival and a shot at a far-from-certain rescue on unpredictable sheets of drifting ice. Alfred Lansing’s recently reissued nail-biting 1959 account of the crew’s incredible teamwork and ingenuity in these terrifying conditions transformed interviews with survivors and the crew members’ diary into a taut, engrossing adventure tale that reads like the frostier cousin of Robinson Crusoe.
14. FOR ALL THE LITTLE LEONARDO DA VINCIS IN YOUR LIFE:
GENIUS!: THE MOST ASTONISHING INVENTIONS OF ALL TIME BY DEBORAH KESPERT
Where would we be without the light bulb or the airplane? (Bored in our own dark houses, probably.) Get the backstories on 21 inventions that changed our world, from the ancient Archimedes screw to space-age rockets, in this brightly illustrated book that’s perfect for budding inventors and kids of all ages.
15. FOR YOUR FAMILY MEMBER WITH A HEAD FOR DATES:
A READER'S BOOK OF DAYS: TRUE TALES FROM THE LIVES AND WORKS OF WRITERS FOR EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR BY TOM NISSLEY
Enliven your morning cereal with a glimpse of the day in literary history, whether it’s real world events (Mary Shelley getting the idea for Frankenstein) or the dates of fictional scenarios written into beloved books (the prom in Stephen King’s Carrie). Also included: The dates when famous authors were born and died, and when they met, reviewed one another, started affairs, and more. Perfect for the next time you need to know when Herman Melville met Abraham Lincoln, or when Arthur Rimbaud got his leg amputated. (The author is a former Jeopardy champion, which should be no great surprise.)
15. FOR THE NEGATIVE NANCY WITH SOME SELF-AWARENESS:
BAD DAYS IN HISTORY: A GLEEFULLY GRIM CHRONICLE OF MISFORTUNE, MAYHEM, AND MISERY FOR EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR BY MICHAEL FARQUHAR
No matter what irritants your day may bring, consider this: Someone probably had it worse. There’s the time casino mogul Steve Wynn accidentally rammed his elbow into a Picasso he’d just sold for $139 million (in his defense, he’s legally blind), or the time 21 people were killed by molasses in Boston. Well-suited for reading during holiday travel, just to remind yourself you probably have it (relatively) easy.
16. FOR THE TYPE A TASK MASTER WHO KNOWS THE IMPORTANCE OF PRIORITIZING:
Lists are often a reflection of what their makers consider important. But while some are banal (buy oranges and milk, finish taxes), others offer a glimpse of an entire world, and frequently a private one (consider George Washington’s list of slaves, or Albert Einstein's list of conditions for his estranged wife). Cheerier—but similarly revealing—entries include Houdini’s set and prop list and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s turkey recipes. A follow-up to the popular Letters of Note and a companion to the Lists of Note blog.
17. FOR YOUR NEPHEW WHO PRIDES HIMSELF IN HIS NONCHALANT ATTITUDE TOWARD SPIDERS:
There are annoying bugs, like fruit flies and mosquitoes, and then there are wicked bugs—like the Asian Giant Hornet, known locally as the yak-killer, whose sting can be fatal and leaves behind pheromones that draw more insects to the wound. (One expert described its sting as being like a “hot nail through my leg.”) Then there’s the Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, an aphid-like creature that nearly destroyed the French wine industry in the 19th century, and critters such as the charmingly named Deathstalker scorpion—which put one Air Force medic on life support. A beautifully illustrated book, ideal for those who love a blend of science and history, plus a walk on the creepier, crawlier side of life.
18. FOR THE PRECOCIOUS ADOLESCENT WHO’S OLD ENOUGH FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE STRANGE:
WEIRD-O-PEDIA: THE ULTIMATE BOOK OF SURPRISING, STRANGE, AND INCREDIBLY BIZARRE FACTS ABOUT (SUPPOSEDLY) ORDINARY THINGS BY ALEX PALMER
Bananas can’t reproduce, a Ukrainian scientist once invented a musical condom, you replace half your friends about every seven years, and the unhappiest city in the country is Portland, Oregon (or so said one 2009 survey—which may have been swayed by considering the number of cloudy days in each city). These are other fascinating facts fill the pages of Weird-o-pedia, a veritable browser’s delight of useless, but entirely pub-worthy, knowledge.
19. FOR THE NATURE LOVER AND/OR ROMANTIC:
THE OLDEST LIVING THINGS IN THE WORLD BY RACHEL SUSSMAN
Step away from the computer and let your mind expand with Rachel Sussman’s homage to the world’s most ancient organisms. Sussman spent over a decade traveling the world to find and photograph organisms alive for 2000 years or more, from 5500-year-old moss in Antarctica to 3000 to 5000 years old stromatolites from Australia. The stunning result also includes an account of her travels, and a call to action for preserving these precious, still-growing remnants of our distant past.
20. FOR THE GASTRONOME WITH A WELL STOCKED PANTRY AND BOOKSHELF:
FICTITIOUS DISHES BY DINAH FRIED
Food, literature, and photography charmingly collide in this recreation of famous meals and snacks in literature, whether it’s the madeleines from In Search of Lost Time or the tea party of Alice in Wonderland. The food photos are paired with the texts that inspired their creation, plus additional savory facts about both the repasts and the reading.
21. FOR YOUR COUSIN WHO’S ALREADY REALLY INTO HER PRODUCTIVITY-FOCUSED NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION:
DAILY RITUALS: HOW ARTISTS WORK BY MASON CURREY
Allay any fears you may have about your own creative process with this beautifully presented peek into how history’s most brilliant and creative minds conducted their days. James Joyce got up every morning at 10 and lay in bed for an hour; Thomas Wolfe wrote standing up in the kitchen, fondling his “male configurations”; Jean-Paul Sartre chewed vast quantities of Corydrane tablets (a mixture of amphetamine and aspirin); Igor Stravinsky stood on his head whenever he felt creatively blocked. There are accounts of more heroic efforts, too—Anthony Trollope required himself to write 3000 words every morning—but it’s far more fun to read about the wacky ways some of history’s most important books, symphonies, and scientific papers actually got produced, back in the days before cat videos.
22. FOR THE MAD SCIENTIST IN THE FAMILY:
THE DISAPPEARING SPOON: AND OTHER TRUE TALES OF MADNESS, LOVE, AND THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD FROM THE PERIODIC TABLE OF THE ELEMENTS BY SAM KEAN
A childhood fascination with the mercury inside thermometers led Sam Kean to begin compiling notes on the history, etymology, forensics, and psychology of the elements. The result is a behind-the-scenes look at one of humankind’s most impressive intellectual achievements—our ordering of the building blocks of our world. The scientists (mad and otherwise) who discovered these elements share equal billing with their discoveries in stories that are funny, fascinating, and occasionally macabre, but always illuminating.
23. FOR THAT PLUSH TOY HOARDER WHO STILL BELIEVES IN THE INVESTMENT:
THE GREAT BEANIE BABY BUBBLE: MASS DELUSION AND THE DARK SIDE OF CUTE BY ZAC BISSONNETTE
For a time in the 1990s, Beanie Babies were on their way to replacing the dollar as acceptable currency. How otherwise rational adults stampeded novelty stores and had judges award them Beanie custody in divorce proceedings is at the tagged heart of Bissonnette’s chronicle, which also includes his close encounter with notoriously reclusive Beanie godfather Ty Warner.
24. FOR YOUR DIE HARD VHS NOSTALGIC:
Before binge watching and high-definition video on demand, watching a film required gas in your car and a well-stocked rental store. Roston’s oral history of the VHS revolution in the 1980s is like an archaeological dig guided by filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell) who got their education on magnetic tape.
25. FOR YOUR GRIT NEWSPAPER READER:
MAIL-ORDER MYSTERIES: REAL STUFF FROM OLD COMIC BOOK ADS! BY KIRK DEMARAIS
X-ray glasses; Sea Monkeys; life-like severed fingers. The ad copy in the back of your old comics promised fun, but most of us were too lazy (or broke) to bother. Fortunately, Demarais was able to track down most of these mail-away products for posterity in this richly-illustrated guide. If you’ve ever wondered whether a 7-foot “nuclear sub” for $6.98 was for real, the answer is in here. (Just don’t get your hopes up.)
26. FOR THE HANDS-ON CREATIVE TYPE:
BUILDING STORIES BY CHRIS WARE
Chris Ware’s masterful 2012 graphic novel is not only a feat in storytelling, but a work of art. Through 14 pieces—ranging from pamphlets to a newspaper broadsheet to a huge, foldable game board—Ware’s creation chronicles the comings and goings of tenants in a Chicago apartment building. There’s no right or wrong way to read the story, so you and a friend can dive right in, swapping pieces as you go. Just make sure you keep a box of tissues nearby: Ware has more than a knack for laying bare raw emotion.
27. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO READ ROOM AND CALLED IT “TOO HEAVY”:
HERE BY RICHARD MCGUIRE
Richard McGuire’s Here may be another graphic novel about a home, but in many ways it couldn’t be more different from Building Stories. McGuire’s gorgeous watercolor illustrations set the tone for Here (there are very few words), which quietly and delicately reveals the events that occurred in one corner of a room—from cocktail parties to buffalo hunts to moments of solitary reflection—over hundreds of thousands of years.
28. FOR YOUR SISTER WHO COLOR COORDINATES HER BOOKS:
MY IDEAL BOOKSHELF BY THESSALY LA FORCE
The perfect gift for book-lovers, My Ideal Bookshelf pairs colorful illustrations of prominent figures’ bookshelves (done by Amy Mount) with first-person essays about the books nearest and dearest to their hearts. Contributors include Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, David Chang, Patti Smith, Judd Apatow, and more. To really go the extra gift-giving mile, get a custom Amy Mount print or painting of your loved one’s favorite books to go along with the book.
29. FOR THE FRIEND WITH SEVERAL FRAMED MAPS IN HIS APARTMENT:
MAP: EXPLORING THE WORLD BY VICTORIA CLARKE
Whether you’re interested in history, cartography, or design inspiration, this book is sure to class up your coffee table. The hefty tome is an exhaustive catalog of more than 300 versions of how we represent the world, from virtually unrecognizable sketches of landmasses a thousand years ago to modern art projects.
30. FOR YOUR OVERSHARING FATHER:
GULP: ADVENTURES ON THE ALIMENTARY CANAL BY MARY ROACH
Let science writer Mary Roach take you on a sometimes hilarious, often gross, and always fascinating trip through the history and science of digestion. You’ll learn all about a 19th-century man who lived with a hole in his stomach, Elvis’ perhaps-fatal constipation issues, the process of making palatable dog food, and so, so much more. (For other Roach classics, check out Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.)
31. FOR THE PSYCH MAJOR WHO DIDN’T JUST CHOOSE IT AS A DEFAULT:
BEHIND THE SHOCK MACHINE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE NOTORIOUS MILGRAM PSYCHOLOGY EXPERIMENTS BY GINA PERRY
If you’ve taken an entry-level psychology class, you’ve probably heard of the Milgram experiments, a set of 1960s Yale psychology experiments that tested people’s predilections toward obedience, even at the expense of strangers’ pain. But there were more to Stanley Milgram’s tests than is often taught in Psych 101. Behind the Shock Machine explores what really went on in the lab, and how distorted Milgram’s findings have become.
32. FOR YOUR FARAWAY FRIEND WHO SOMEHOW KNOWS MORE ABOUT YOUR CITY THAN YOU DO:
HAPPY CITY: TRANSFORMING OUR LIVES THROUGH URBAN DESIGN BY CHARLES MONTGOMERY
Can cities be designed to make people happy? According to Charles Montgomery, yes. Everything from the size of our front yards to the width of our streets and the design of a building’s front door can influence how we behave and interact, in ways that can be counterintuitive. Whether you’re from a sleepy suburb or a bustling metropolis, Happy City will change how you think about where you live.
33. FOR THE CEPHALOPOD ENTHUSIAST (BECAUSE EVERYONE KNOWS ONE):
OCTOPUS!: THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE SEA BY KATHERINE HARMON COURAGE
The octopus is one of the most intelligent animals around, but in many ways, they’re utterly alien. They have what are essentially brains in each of their arms, are completely anti-social (one mating ritual involves a literal hand-off of reproductive material), and can change their skin color almost instantaneously. This book is full of octopus trivia you’ll be tempted to break out at parties forevermore.
34. FOR THE FANTASY GEEK WHO NEEDS ANOTHER OUTLET FOR HIS/HER NERDOM:
THE ART OF LANGUAGE INVENTION: FROM HORSE-LORDS TO DARK ELVES, THE WORDS BEHIND WORLD-BUILDING BY DAVID J. PETERSON
It takes a lot of creativity, imagination, and work to create entire worlds like those in Game of Thrones, Thor: The Dark World, and Defiance, but creating entire languages for those worlds is some next level nerdom (and we are all about it). Peterson has two degrees in linguistics, speaks eight languages, and is responsible for the fully functional but fictional languages Dothraki and High Valyrian (spoken on GoT), as well as others. In the book, Peterson offers a fascinating glimpse of what it’s like to invent a language as well as tools for creating your own.
35. FOR YOUR NIECE WHO JUST GOT A ROCK POLISHER OR MICROSCOPE:
To the naked eye, all sand looks pretty much the same. But magnified by a hundred-fold or more, each individual grain exhibits a distinct beauty. Dr. Gary Greenberg photographs what he calls these "dramatic landscapes of hidden worlds" using a high-powered light microscope to give each grain its due. Greenberg's photographs feature grains of sand from all over the world—and beyond. In collaboration with Dr. Carol Kiely and Professor Christopher Kiely from Lehigh University, he’s even photographed grains of sand from the moon that were collected during the Apollo 11 voyage. There are no crashing waves to create sand on the lunar surface, though; instead, the dust is the result of a constant battering on the moon's surface by meteorites and micrometeorites.
36. FOR YOUR DESIGN FRIEND WHO LOVES THE ART IN NATURAL HISTORY BOOKS: OPULENT OCEANS: EXTRAORDINARY RARE BOOK SELECTIONS FROM THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY LIBRARY BY MELANIE L.J. STIASSNY
Most people don’t have many opportunities to experience the underwater universe of Earth's oceans firsthand. Instead, we rely on photos, drawings, and essays like the ones in Opulent Oceans to bring us closer to the ecosystems that cover over 70 percent of the planet. From whales to coral, this book from the American Museum of Natural history covers the vast world of oceanography with lovely detailed illustrations including 40 frameable prints. For the natural-science devotee who likes to stay dry, we also recommend the AMNH’s Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library by Tom Baione (basically a companion text to Opulent), as well as Creatures of the Deep by Erich Hoyt for amazing underwater photos, and Bird Love by Leila Jeffreys for the prettiest bird photos you’ve ever seen.
37. FOR THE COMPLICATED GENIUS:
THE INVENTOR AND THE TYCOON BY EDWARD BALL
On the surface, Leland Stanford and Eadweard Muybridge didn’t have much in common. One was a wealthy, horse-obsessed railroad tycoon who would go on to found Stanford University; the other, an eccentric and volatile photographer. Stanford became Muybridge’s patron and friend, initially hiring the already well-known landscape photographer to snap photos of his new San Francisco mansion. Later, he asked Muybridge to figure out (through photography) if horses lifted all four feet off the ground while running. When Muybridge succeeded in snapping the photos that showed the horses with all four hooves off the ground in 1873, it made him more famous than ever. The next year, he murdered his wife’s lover—and got away with it.
38. FOR THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL ENTHUSIAST:
MOTEL OF THE MYSTERIES BY DAVID MACAULAY
Written and illustrated by David Macaulay, Motel of the Mysteries begins in 1985, with a catastrophe that wipes out civilization in the United States. By 3850, archeologists are digging on the continent—and in 4022, Howard Carson, participating in a marathon across what is called Usa, makes the discovery of a lifetime. The ground gives way and deposits him in front of a door. That door opens up to a “tomb” which readers will recognize as a motel room, with artifacts such as “the ceremonial burial cap” and “the sacred pendant” (a shower cap and a drain plug, respectively). Published three years after items from King Tut’s tomb toured the United States, Motel of the Mysteries is a parody of Howard Carter’s discovery of the boy king’s tomb and pokes fun at the tendency to bestow great meaning on ancient objects. After all, sometimes a toilet seat is just a toilet seat, and not a sacred collar.
39. FOR THAT CERTAIN SOMEONE WHO DEFIES CLASSIFICATION:
These egg-laying, venom-toting mammals have puzzled scientists since they were discovered in 1797—and famously, the first European naturalists to lay eyes on a specimen thought the animal was a hoax. In Platypus, Ann Moyal journeys to Australia to see the animal in the wild, then examines the animal’s impact on the classification system, recounts the debates it sparked, and reveals how it shaped Darwin’s theory of evolution.
40. FOR THE FRIEND WHO’S A SECRET SERVICE/FBI AGENT/UNDERCOVER COP/INTERNATIONAL SPY WANNABE:
MIND HUNTER: INSIDE THE FBI’S ELITE SERIAL CRIME UNIT BY JOHN DOUGLAS AND MARK OLSHAKER
During his career, Special Agent John Douglas—the Mind Hunter himself, and the basis for Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs—writes about his life and his part in developing the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit, which has profiled and helped to capture some of the most notorious serial killers in American history. Initially called the Behavioral Science Unit, the division had tough beginnings: According to Douglas, FBI founder Herbert Hoover was no fan: “Back in the ‘just the facts, ma’am’ Hoover days, no one in any position of authority considered what became known as profiling to be a valid crime solving tool,” he writes. “So anyone ‘dabbling’ in it would have to do so very informally, with no records kept.” To develop the tools necessary to create profiles, Douglas and his team extensively interviewed serial killers in prison.
41. FOR THE COWORKER WHO’S ALWAYS TAKING YOU TO THE NEWEST AND COOLEST TACO TRUCK:
TACOPEDIA BY DEBORAH HOLTZ AND JUAN CARLOS MENA
A lot of taco fanatics (and there are many) talk a big game, but do they have the knowledge to back it up? This encyclopedic look at Mexico’s taco culture contains 100 recipes, along with photos, interviews, graphics, illustrations and maps. It’s a fitting tribute to the history of the dish, both in its reverence and sense of fun, and is a must-have for the taco connoisseur who’s tried every variation out there.
42. FOR THE VISUAL READER:
PLOTTED: A LITERARY ATLAS BY ANDREW DEGRAFF
What did Robinson Crusoe’s “Island of Despair” look like? Or the Mississippi River journey in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Or how about the mind-bending travels through time and space in A Wrinkle in Time? This collection of maps from literary classics helps to turn those imaginary spaces into a physical reality with stunning illustrations. The colorful cartographic take on old favorites makes it easy to dive right back into beloved literary worlds.
43. FOR THE PARENT WHO HASN’T SLEPT IN YEARS:
THE RABBIT WHO WANTS TO FALL ASLEEP BY CARL-JOHAN FORSSEN EHRLIN
Bedtime can be really tough for parents and kids, but what if there was a book that could solve that? It sounds far too good to be true, but The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep reportedly does just that. Translated from Swedish into English, the book has garnered unmitigated success with countless testimonials from parents who all say their child falls asleep before the book is even over. Which isn't to say there aren’t detractors—some parents say it didn’t help their child at all and others have called its hypnosis techniques into question. Still, for all those parents out there who haven’t slept in months, this book might be just the thing they’re dreaming of.
44. FOR THE DAD WHO ALREADY OWNS EVERY BASEBALL-RELATED GIFT KNOWN TO MAN:
A HISTORY OF BASEBALL IN 100 OBJECTS by JOSH LEVENTHAL
Every gift guide for dads is sure to contain something baseball-y, but this one is actually worth investing in (sorry, baseball mitt shaped oven mitt). It’s exactly what it says it is—a complete history of America’s favorite pastime told through 100 objects, from documents to equipment to merchandise. It’s visually stunning and textually informative in equal measure, with full-page photographs accompanied by stories, context, and historical significance. Great for the reader who wants to reminisce while they learn something new.
45. FOR THE WINO WITH A PENCHANT FOR DRAMA:
THE BILLIONAIRE’S VINEGAR: THE MYSTERY OF THE WORLD’S MOST EXPENSIVE BOTTLE OF WINE BY BENJAMIN WALLACE
The most expensive bottle of wine ever sold was a 1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson. It fetched $156,000 at auction in 1985, and the authenticity was questioned from the very beginning. At the heart of the mystery is the man who discovered the bottle (engraved with the initials “Th. J.”)—a well-known wine collector named Hardy Rodenstock. His story serves as the launching point for an absorbing look at the world of pricey wine, from collecting to counterfeiting and beyond, for a thrilling true life tale about a world far beyond grocery store Merlots and weekend wine tastings.
46. FOR THE PERSON IN YOU’RE LIFE THAT’D BE MOST EFFECTED BY THIS ERROR-RIDDLED PHRASE:
BETWEEN YOU & ME: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMA QUEEN BY MARY NORRIS
Part memoir, part grammar guide, and part a collection of juicy tidbits from behind the scenes at The New Yorker (where Norris has been a copy editor for decades), this utterly charming bestseller is perfect for readers and writers who carry a flame for proper English. Also a great conversation starter if you want to argue about the Oxford comma or make people furrow their brows with the tidbit that there’s actually, technically a hyphen in Moby-Dick.
47. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO’S OBSESSED WITH CARL SAGAN AND NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON:
HEADSTRONG: 52 WOMEN WHO CHANGED SCIENCE—AND THE WORLD BY RACHEL SWABY
Maria Mitchell—one of the 52 women profiled—was among the first Americans to discover a comet and was the first female American astronomer. As a professor at Vassar, she bucked curfew rules to hold her astronomy classes (gasp!) at night. Swaby’s book is the kind of quick read that you can devour in a couple of days or pick up every now and again, and shines a light on the women who have been a powerful force in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering for centuries.
48. FOR YOUR MINDFUL FOODIE FRIEND:
INGREDIENTS: A VISUAL EXPLORATION OF 75 ADDITIVES & 25 FOOD PRODUCTS BY STEVE ETTLINGER AND DWIGHT ESCHLIMAN
Reading an ingredient label isn’t quite the same as meeting each component of your guilty pleasure—from the Blue No. 1 in Cool Ranch Doritos to the dehydrated onions in Campbell’s Chunky Classic Chicken Noodle Soup—face to face. Enter Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products, a collaboration between photographer Dwight Eschliman and writer Steve Ettlinger. The two dissect a range of processed foods and additives—from MorningStar sausage patties to shellac—walking the reader through unexpected tidbits about each item, like that most of the country’s cornstarch production goes into making paper and cardboard or that we’ve known about coffee since the ninth century, but only started making caffeine extract in 1821. Whether or not you want them on your plate, these Ingredients prove a feast for the eyes and mind.
49. FOR YOUR CULTURED AND CAT CRAZY AUNT:
CATS GALORE: A COMPENDIUM OF CULTURED CATS BY SUSAN HERBERT
If you’re a cat person, even highbrow culture can be improved upon—so long as you add whiskers and a tail. That seemed to be the personal motto of late English artist Susan Herbert (1945-2014), who gained international acclaim for her hyper-realistic paintings of sophisticated felines. Herbert’s watercolors portray tabbies and tomcats alike posing and prancing their way through scenes borrowed from famous works of film, art, opera, ballet, and literature. Feline Hamlet? Check. Tuxedo cat-with-cigar as Charlie Chaplin? Check. A furry Venus ascending from a clamshell in a surprisingly dignified reinterpretation of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus? Check. This volume culls images from four of Herbert’s previous compilations and groups them by section, based on whether the kitties are on-stage, on-screen, or on-canvas stars.
50. FOR THE FRIEND WHO LOVES NATURE, AND CONFESSIONALS:
BAD LUCK, HOT ROCKS: CONSCIENCE LETTERS AND PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE PETRIFIED FOREST BY RYAN THOMPSON AND PHIL ORR
The Petrified Forest National Park of northeast Arizona’s Painted Desert was designated a national monument in 1906, in part to protect the 200-million-year-old deposits of petrified wood that formed there during the late Triassic period. Only problem? Visitors can’t seem to keep their hands off them—they frequently pocket bits of petrified wood (colloquially known as “rocks”) as souvenirs. Later, many of them regret the move. That’s when the thieves mail the rocks, along with cathartic letters, back to the park. Bad Luck, Hot Rocks, compiles the confessions, from the heartrending to the hilarious. (The thefts are often seen to be the starting point for strings of bad luck.) Visual artist Ryan Thompson became interested in the phenomenon on a 2011 park visit. So he and coeditor Phil Orr mined the park’s archives for the most interesting letters (there are more than 1200 of them) and photographed the rocks in question. Ironically, the park can’t actually return the rocks to the land: It would undermine geologic research being done there. While the erstwhile souvenirs land in a pickup truck–size “conscience pile” in a secluded area of the park, at least the hearts of their returners are a little less heavy.