Comfort Zones

Settling Down With This Season's Coffee Table Books

Catalog(Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $16.95) imbues the inanimate objects culled from a 1950s mail-order catalog with Zen-like calm. Edited by graphic designer Carin Goldberg, Catalog strips utilitarian items—brassieres, kitchenware—of their domestic context and positions them instead as marvels of engineering (jockstrap) or icons of spiritual significance (empty glove with fingers outstretched).

While Catalog recontextualizes retro images to suggest timelessness, Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984(MIT, $49.95) commemorates aging technology that was supposed to look like the future. Editor Van Burnham argues that these games didinspire a new generation of technological innovators, which is especially fun to remember as you look at the book's gleefully nostalgic illustrations (the minimalist graphics of Space Invaders; the early Atari ad with groovy couple boogying in an arcade) and reading the astute, personal mini-essays by Julian Dibbell, Steven Johnson, and other tech luminati.

The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century(PPP Editions/DAP, $85), is a coffee table book about coffee table books, or at least a very important subgenre. In the process of choosing the 101 books of the title, this beautifully designed volume (with entries penned by David Levi Strauss and the Voice's own Vince Aletti) manages to put the whole medium of photography in historical context, all while displaying graceful layouts from classic books—from Edward S. Curtis's 1907 North American Indian, Helen Levitt's 1965 A Way of Seeing, and Nobuyoshi Araki's 1971 Sentimental Journey up to David LaChappelle's 1996 LaChappelle Land.

"The generous, round shape of the ypomoea root looks like a fertility symbol."
photo: Sarah Allen/Bloom: Horti-Culture for the 21st Century/Flammarion
"The generous, round shape of the ypomoea root looks like a fertility symbol."

Crosstown (powerHouse, $75) is a greatest-hits package, collecting many of Helen Levitt's most famous and powerful images in one book: children making mischief in Manhattan ghettos and tenements, lovers unselfconsciously riding dilapidated subway trains. "What goes without saying is how much of the city pictured here . . . no longer exists," Francine Prose writes in her introduction, which is why the first thing one is likely to do upon picking up Matteo Pericoli's Manhattan Unfurled (Random House, $29.95)—delicate line drawings of Manhattan's entire skyline that open accordion-style into one long panoramic view—is to find the page with our two lost towers, whose fragile vertical lines seem to vibrate here. Manhattan Unfurled reminds us of what we've lost; New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers (powerHouse, $29.95) offers devastating evidence of downtown's destruction from the likes of Susan Meiselas and Gilles Peress—one book that will resonate for many of us this year.

Alternately, Cityscapes: A History of New York in Images(Columbia University Press, $60) offers the long-term perspective. An urban history that intersperses extensive (though sometimes dry) text by Howard B. Rock and Deborah Dash Moore with a huge array of drawings, maps, and photographs, Cityscapes showcases both the place and the people constantly tearing down, rebuilding, and generally transforming this lovely, lowly, hectic, dirty, contemplative, stubborn metropolis. It makes clear that Manhattan's very charm is its refusal to . . . well, settle.

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