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Books your table will be proud of

'Tis the season for big books and gift boxes

By Todd Leopold

"The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker" comes with two CD-ROMs featuring every cartoon the magazine has ever run.
Tiffany & Company
Robert Mankoff
Ronald Wilson Reagan
Madison Square Garden (New York)

(CNN) -- Does anyone ever read a coffee-table book?

Sure, they're beautiful -- often printed on the finest heavyweight paper, elegantly laid out, heaving with photographs and filled with rich musings from literary prize-winners (or, just as often, no text at all beyond captions and credits).

But, all too often, they merely take up space in the doctors' offices of our land, browsed through for five minutes before the next patient is called.

That's a shame, because they're often full of wondrous things -- and books this lovingly assembled shouldn't have to molder, binding barely cracked, in somebody's waiting room.

Herewith a handful of coffee-table books -- as well as one notable textbook parody and one boxed biography -- worth the price.

"The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker," edited by Robert Mankoff (Black Dog & Leventhal, $60)

Can a book costing $60 and weighing more than nine pounds be the bargain of the year? You bet. "The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker" is just that -- a book of more than 2,000 of the magazine's best panels, from James Thurber and Charles Addams to Bruce Kaplan and Roz Chast -- accompanied by two CD-ROMs containing every cartoon The New Yorker has ever published. You'll be laughing for years.

"America Discovered: A Historical Atlas of Exploration" by Derek Hayes (Douglas & McIntyre, $40)

How did we get from there to here? This book chronicles the settling of the United States from 1000 A.D. to the present through maps, often created by the explorers themselves, following the paths of Columbus, Lewis and Clark and modern scientific surveys. A must for geography, cartography and history buffs.

"Oscar Night: 75 Years of Hollywood Parties," ed. by Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter and Bruce Friend (Knopf, $75)

In recent years, Vanity Fair's Oscar party has become the go-to place to be on Academy Awards night, and the magazine illustrates some of the most glittering gatherings of the past 75 years -- its own and those of others, including legendary agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar. If you want to see celebrities in all their glory (and some not quite so glorious), this is the book.

"Garden of Dreams: Madison Square Garden 125 Years" by George Kalinsky (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $35)

The classic New York arena, once actually located at Madison Square (then uptown to Eighth Avenue and 50th St., now at Seventh and 33rd), has hosted circuses, concerts, political rallies, sports events and at least one notable murder (that of architect Stanford White, whose death became the opening event in E.L. Doctorow's book "Ragtime"). Kalinsky's book features photographs from all eras, from the time of P.T. Barnum to the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight to the post-September 11 rally and concert. It's practically a history of the United States in miniature.

"Tiffany Timepieces" by John Loring (Abrams, $60)

You'll never look at your kitchen clock -- or your wrist -- the same way again after paging through this sumptuously illustrated history of clocks and watches carried by one of the world's most notable jewelers. The artistry, the craftsmanship, the sheer beauty of one of engineering's most basic instruments come alive in this book by Tiffany's longtime design director.

"America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction" by John Stewart and the staff of "The Daily Show" (Warner, $24.95)

A parody of a civics book that goes so far beyond its jokes it could actually be used in schools. After all, all the basics are here -- how the Constitution works (or not), how the political system works (or not), how the media works (or not) -- and they're far more eye-opening than the turgid stuff you get in 11th grade. Worth the price: the actual daily schedule of a 24-hour news network.


"Ronald Reagan: A Life in Politics" by Lou Cannon (PublicAffairs, $35, in two volumes)

The boxed set of Lou Cannon's biography of the 40th president is probably the most accurate, and best written, of the Reagan works. Cannon, a longtime reporter for the San Jose Mercury-News, covered Reagan from his rise as a California political figure and provides a nonpartisan, detailed look at just what made the man tick.

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