Gift Guide Part One: Books
How to be a cool and cultured polyglot of a friend and friend of the polyglot.
By Maria Popova
‘Tis the season of giving, and we have your back with curated gifts ideas that are bound to delight and enlighten with a mix of smarts, quirk and non-genericism. This is Part 1 of the three-part Brain Pickings holiday gift guide: Books. (Part 2 will focus on gifts for kids of all ages and the eternal kid, and Part 3 will give you ideas for priceless free gifts.)
THE ANCIENT BOOK OF SEX & SCIENCE
Four Pixar animators release a racy side project — need we say more?
Still, we did — here’s our full review, with a few glorious illustrations from the book to give you a teaser taste of what’s an absolute cover-to-cover gem.
Perfect for: Designers, artists, animation lovers, irreverent culture buffs, hipsters of all stripes
THE JAZZ LOFT PROJECT
A feat of photography, cultural anthroplogy and music history, The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 offers a fascinating slice of life from one of the 20th century’s most defining eras.
We reviewed it here, where you can read about the incredible story of how it came to be and see exclusive images from its pages. (It was also one of the most popular pieces on Brain Pickings this year.)
Perfect for: Lovers of photography, jazz, history, New York, vintage culture
THE VISUAL MISCELLANEUM
What makes information visualization so appealing is that it bridges so many different disciplines — design, statistics, content curation, art, mathematics — to marry them with pure human curiosity and the love of knowledge, offering digestible, intuitive insight into issues that may otherwise seem confusing, alienating or intimidating. The Visual Miscellaneum does all that and more, with fascinating and gripping visualizations of anything from global Internet trends to the most pleasurable guilty pleasures.
For a look inside and further well-deserved superlatives, check out our review of the book.
Perfect for: Those into data visualization, design, trivia; lifelong learners and the relentlessly curious
CASSETTE FROM MY EX
When a blog gets a book deal, you know it’s onto something great. And Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves is a perfect case study. Sixty noted writers and musicians wax poetic about their mixtape masterpieces and the relationship that inspired them, revealing amusing and incredibly relatable pieces of human truth in the process.
We reviewed it in full here.
Perfect for: Music lovers, hopeless romantics, cultural nostalgics
THE OBAMA TIME CAPSULE
Regardless of your political inclinations or nationality, it’s hard to deny the incredible cultural phenomenon of Obamania. From being the first campaign in history to be orchestrated practically on social media, to helping a generation never before interested in politic find its civic voice, to making the boldest case for equality to date, it affected much more than politics and reached much further than America.
Now, author and photographer Rick Smolan (whom you may recall from last year’s fantastic Blue Planet Run, another highly recommended read) is capturing the phenomenon in a unique project: The Obama Time Capsule.
Besides brimming with amazing images by 140 of the world’s leading photographers, the book features an excitingly unusual twist: It’s customizable and personalizable.
We’re keenly aware that politics is a tricky subject. Views vary, people pout, and the concept of “happy medium” is darn near nonexistent. But look at it this way: If your mom had a personalized visual record of Beatlemania, full of vibrant vintage photographs and inscribed with her own dedication to her not-yet-born children, how priceless would that be?
Perfect for: History lovers, Obama supporters, those interested in the sociology of politics, customization addicts
Another excellent blog-turned-book, Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities features 138 of the most fascinating, absorbing and remarkable maps from the blog’s 3-year history of culling the world’s forgotten, little-known and niche cartographic treasures.
From the world as depicted in Orwell’s 1984, to a color map of Thomas More’s Utopia, to the 16th-century portrayal of California as an island where people live like the Amazons, the book peels away at our collective conception of the world over the centuries, revealing rich layers of history, sociology, politics, anthropology and pure amusement.
Snack on a few maps from the book for a taste of its brilliance in our full review.
Perfect for: Map geeks, history geeks, geeks; the chronically curious
WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE
Between 1968 and 1972, author and activist Stewart Brand, who helped start the environmental movement in the 60’s, published the highly acclaimed Whole Earth Catalog — an iconic counterculture compendium of tools, texts and miscellaneous information, which Steve Jobs went on to describe as the conceptual forerunner of the World Wide Web.
This year, he followed up with the long-awaited Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, a sharp and compelling vision for engineering our collective future.
Our full review.
Perfect for: The socially-conscious, ecologically-minded, future-forward
Johnny Carrera’s Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities is an absolute feat of artistry and bookbinding — a charming, chunky volume of over 1,500 engravings from Webster’s 19th-century dictionaries, cleaned, restored and curated in a captivating and unusual reference guide for modernity.
There are also two equally delightful companions to the book — a stamp kit and a set of wall cards.
We reviewed it fully here.
Perfect for: Vintage junkies, those who love the art and craft of books, illustration and design lovers, history geeks
Product designer, activist and Project H founder Emily Pilloton is one of our big heroes. This year, she published Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People — a fascinating anthology of 100 contemporary design products and systems that change lives in brilliantly elegant ways.
From a high-tech waterless washing machine, to low-cost prosthetics for landmine victims, to Braille-based Lego-style building blocks for blind children, to a DIY soccer ball, the book reads like a manual, thinks like a manifesto, and feels like a powerful jolt of fire-in-your-belly inspiration.
Our full review.
Perfect for: Design thinkers, change agents, do-gooders, those in need of inspiration and restoration of their faith in humanity
WE FEEL FINE
In 2005, visionary artist-storyteller Jonathan Harris embarked upon an ambitious project: To record the collective sentiment of the social web in a massive ongoing visualization. The project, titled We Feel Fine, soon became an icon of interactive storytelling and data visualization.
Four years and 12 million human emotions later, Harris co-authored We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion, a remarkable and visually indulgent anthology of infographics, visualizations, and scientific observations of the dreams, passions and worries that make us human. We’ve been awaiting this book for a long time, and it more than meets our gargantuan expectations — so it’s at the top of this year’s Brain Pickings favorite and comes highly, highly recommended.
Peek inside the book’s whimsical and fascinating pages in our full review and read editor Maria Popova’s interview with Harris for Wired UK.
Perfect for: Everyone and anyone, but especially the visually inclined; fans of PostSecret; cultural voyeurs
For more excellent, eclectic and relentlessly fascinating gift ideas, check out all the books we recommended this year. And stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 of our holiday gift guide.
Published December 7, 2009