This holiday season ought to be unlike any other — if the majority of America operates like there’s a pandemic happening. More gift-giving stands to unfold by mail than ever before, with the CDC urging Americans to not travel for Christmas.
Although it’s hard to picture people safely gathering in your house to admire a coffee table book anytime soon, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. After what’s sure to be a brutal winter, vaccines are on track to gradually roll out to the public this spring, slowly approaching something closer to normalcy. So just imagine, sometime in the next year: attending a dinner party at a marginal acquaintance’s house, surrounded by people you barely know, but without the threat of spreading a generational plague. Here are some of the best pop culture coffee table books you can give as a gift to friends, ensuring a better distraction at future parties for years to come.
Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks — Adam Nayman
Nearly 25 years after his feature debut, and it’s possible we haven’t even hit the halfway point of Paul Thomas Anderson’s near-spotless career. Nevermind the timing, there’s never a bad chance to chronicle one of the most promising runs in modern film. Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks offers a definitive, remarkably thorough glimpse at the story so far. Working through Anderson’s films chronologically from the year in which they’re set, critic Adam Nayman combines striking movie stills, critical essays, and interviews with some of the director’s closest collaborators. As he did with The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together, Nayman offers a vivid overview of the master at work.
Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS — Maria Sherman
If you’re anything like me — that is, consider boy bands to be a fundamental building block to your early music fandom, with the *NSNYC marionettes tucked away somewhere in your childhood home — then Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS is an essential resource to help fill in some gaps. It’s an encyclopedic guide to an unsung and under-appreciated wing of popular music that has every right to be canonized alongside rock groups and standalone pop artists. Maria Sherman — who, for sake of disclosure, I’ve worked with before — matches the eye-popping illustrations in verve and enthusiasm. The other week, I was watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and saw an unfamiliar boy band, CNCO up on a float. Sure enough, I flipped open Larger Than Life, and there was a page to get me up to speed.
Mirror Sound: The People and Processes Behind Self-Recorded Music — Spencer Tweedy and Lawrence Azerrad
The first coffee table book to actively demystify the home recording process, Spencer Tweedy and Lawrence Azerrad confront the reality for an increasing chunk of artists working today. Part instructional toolkit for budding artists, part behind-the-scenes glimpse for music fans, it offers a comprehensive look at how the recording, mixing, and engineering process can unfold right at home. They take you inside the studios of a range of artists, including Mac DeMarco, Vagabon, Tune-Yards, and more, to illustrate that it’s never been easier to go it alone.
Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics — Dolly Parton
It’s hard to think of another 74-year-old star who somehow became more beloved than they were a year earlier, but Dolly Parton continues to defy the odds. Whether it’s through a comprehensive podcast, a new Netflix documentary, or funding one of the leading COVID vaccines, she’s still on top. But above all else, she’s one of the greatest living songwriters, which Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics aims to center. Parton’s new book celebrates her wildly prolific writing career, with 175 lyric sheets, old photographs, and new insights from the master herself.
Binging with Babish: 100 Recipes Recreated from Your Favorite Movies and TV Shows — Andrew Rea
Stretching the limits of coffee table designation here — technically a recipe book — Binging with Babish’s 2019 collection is rich and vibrant enough for public display. One of the most popular food YouTube channels around — which I’ll confess, didn’t really have much interest in before it picked up Sohla El-Waylly’s series this year — Binging with Babish thrives on demystifying Hollywood food staples. Host Andrew Rea tackles a wide range of fictional food items, from the babka in Seinfeld to Bubba Gump shrimp. How could a cookbook with Remy’s Ratatouille on the cover not win over my heart?
Accidentally Wes Anderson — Wally Koval
Whether you find his whimsy magnetic or grating, there’s no arguing that Wes Anderson backdrops are perfect for the coffee table treatment. That said, Accidentally Wes Anderson isn’t exactly your standard film book, or really one at all — although the director himself penned its foreword. Sharing a name with his successful Instagram account, Wally Koval compiles some uncanny Andersonian backdrops, from mountainous landscapes to vibrant Italian bowling alleys. It’s a fan-sourced, globetrotting enterprise to find the director’s signature aesthetic out in the wild.
The Art of Mondo
If you’ve found Mondo posters to be consistently gorgeous but prohibitively expensive, this could be the book. The Austin-based art gallery is always cranking out new prints and elaborate redesigns of classic film posters. Back in the years when I was most vulnerable to sinking a bunch of money into this sort of thing, they were usually all sold out of the current designs, but the Mondo shop has a robust Pixar lineup — with a great Thin Red Line poster — on their store. But if you go the route of this coffee table book, with foreword by director Brad Bird, expect to find hundreds of Mondo designs, from Godzilla to Clerks.
Cinemaps: An Atlas of 35 Great Movies — Andrew DeGraff
Back when I used to regularly go to the bookstore — remember those? — Cinemaps was one of those books I'd admiringly flip through but never buy. This is such meticulous, almost intimidatingly reverent cartography of fictional worlds. Artist Andrew DeGraff maps out plausible layouts for the towns featured in Back to the Future, Fargo, The Princess Bride, and many more — and then goes the extra step of tracing the heroes’ journey chronologically. It’s easy enough to get lost flipping through it in the store, let alone at home.
Catching a terrible case of pandemic timing, this retrospective book and MoMA exhibition celebrating the career of Donald Judd were scheduled to debut on the week in March when everything turned south. A reluctant pioneer in minimalist sculpture — or at least reluctant to classify it as such — Judd progressed from painting into sculpting with a spare, stark color palette and visual language all his own. This expansive book brings his finest work right into your home, paired with a bounty of critical essays to help make sense of it all.