Historical books

Best coffee table stories of 2014.


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I would love to sing the praises of large-format, picture-rich historical books that are creative in their approach and beautiful to read. I guess you could call them tabletop books – they’re pretty enough to use for display – but the ones I like the most also have great text, and you may find yourself reading them seriously. I’m putting together a few of my favorites from this year, so anyone still looking for a holiday gift for a history fan can find inspiration.

I’ll start with some historical photography books. Imagine dogs, see yourself, by Ann-Janine Morey, is a beautiful collection of 19 vernacularse– and 20e– century images of dogs and their owners. The 115 photographs in the book – snapshots and studio portraits – represent all kinds of family groups and individuals with their dogs, captured in various settings. Morey complements the images with thoughtful text about the cultural meanings of American dog owners over the years.

I am a big fan of the book For the love of his people: the photography of Horace Poolaw, and posted some pictures on this blog in September. Poolaw was a Kiowa photographer who worked in a multitribal community in Oklahoma in the mid-20’se century. His photographs – which he took not for publication, but for the use and enjoyment of those around him – are moving, human and beautiful.

The Imperial War Museum The Great War: a photographic narrative (by Mark Holborn and Hilary Roberts) is heavy and gorgeous. Even someone interested in WWI will likely find many images there that they have never seen before. While the range of perspectives is fascinating – the editors have included works by German Army photographers – I have found the book’s photos of stacked ammunition, queued planes and wire Stacked barbed wire was the most compelling, bringing home the material scale of warfare in a whole new way.

Stories of infographics and maps give great context to the kinds of information-rich images that tend to float around the internet without getting too anchored. A story of the twentieth century in 100 cards, by Tim Bryars and Tom Harper, provides insight into the explosion of types of cartography over the past century. Their collection ranges from official tactical maps for waging war, to a map of the opium trade in 1907, Tolkien’s map of Middle-earth, to maps used as postcards and games, all accompanied by discussions of origins and meanings.

Aristotle’s Ladder, Darwin’s Tree: The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order, by J. David Archibald, will appeal to anyone interested in the biology or history of computer graphics. Outlines of maps, charts, diagrams, and notes (many of them from Darwins) show how scientists and lay people crafted the visual language we used to understand the relationship between living things. Related, The Book of Trees: Visualizing the Branches of Knowledge, by Manuel Lima, includes many rich examples of ancient and modern tree diagrams. I featured a graphic from this book – a depiction of the mid-century petroleum explosion – on this blog in April.

Virginia City, Nevada, lithographed view by Grafton Brown. Printed in early 1861 and sold for $ 2.50.

Of San Francisco Lithographer: African-American Artist Grafton Tyler Brown, by Robert J. Chandler.


San Francisco Lithographer: African-American Artist Grafton Tyler Brown, by Robert J. Chandler, is a biography of a commercial artist working in the 19e-western century, supplemented by cutting-edge examples of his work. Brown’s lithographs, which have appeared for the most part in everyday settings (billheads, checks, labels), are absolutely magnificent; viewed together and in order, they offer a real sense of what early San Francisco print culture might have looked like.

The sick rose: disease and the art of medical illustration, by Richard Barnett, is a beautifully crafted book of 18e– and 19e-engravings, drawings and lithographs of suffering patients, from the century Wellcome Library collection. (I wrote about some of these images online earlier this year.) The book is organized by disease, and Barnett’s introductory text for each section describes medical and cultural beliefs about affliction at the time, putting the terrible and compelling images into context.

And finally, as a gift for anyone interested in space or the history of advertising, Moon Marketing: The Sale of the Apollo Lunar Program (by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek) will fascinate. The book chronicles the tremendous efforts made to gain favorable media coverage of the Apollo program and to educate the public on the science behind the effort. (I posted images of two tracking wheels, distributed to the press to provide technical background for the missions, on this blog in May.) Its pages include numerous reproductions of material from press kits, TV shows, and of advertisements.

Disclosure: slate is a subsidiary of Amazon; when you click on an Amazon link from Slate, the magazine gets a share of the proceeds of everything you buy.



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