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Emphasis This Season Is On Easy Scholarship

Holiday gift books for the perpetually curious

By Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor. / November 30, 1995

Information comes packed in many forms these days, from audio and videotapes to CD-ROM. Still, when it comes to giving gifts, a well-made book can be a thing of beauty in itself - to have and behold - and a source of continuing joy in what its pages have to offer.

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One of the season's most beautiful and imaginatively produced books is Sara Kochav's Israel: Splendors of the Holy Land (Thames and Hudson, 292 pp., $50). Lavishly illustrated with full-color drawings, ancient and modern prints and maps, and excellent color photographs (including some spectacular aerial shots of landscapes, cityscapes, and ancient archaeological sites), this hefty tome also provides a succinct history of the Holy Land from the Stone Age to modern times. Also included is an illustrated guide to exploring famous sites, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Dome of the Rock, and the fortress city of Megiddo.

The opulent clutter of the Edwardian age is strikingly recalled in Felix Barker's fine selection of black-and-white pictures, London in Old Photographs: 1897-1914, introduced by Alistair Cooke (Bulfinch, 208 pp., $35). Royalty, picture hats, the imposing ''new'' department stores, suffragists, horseless carriages, dance halls, soup kitchens: Dated fashions and timeless faces are elucidated by a literate text that aptly points out salient trends of this era.

Now permanently moored as a tourist attraction/hotel in Long Beach Harbor, Calif., the Cunard Line's Queen Mary was once widely deemed the most elegant ship on the high seas: a paragon of speed, luxury, and fine design. From Phaidon Press, distributed by Chronicle Books, comes a book whose stylish design and well-researched contents do its subject full justice: James Steele's Queen Mary (240 pp., $59.95). A floating monument to Art Deco, the Queen Mary also served in World War II as a troopship. Steele provides a detailed history of the great liner, amply illustrated with photographs of everything from swimming pools to kiddie playrooms, and detailed blueprints and cross sections of the deck plans.

A handy way to travel - through time - is browsing The Columbia Chronicles of American Life 1910-1992, by Lois and Alan Gordon (Columbia University Press, 838 pp., $39.95). This engagingly illustrated volume offers a year-by-year report on the major and minor happenings in politics, science, fashion, books, entertainment, sports, music, and advertising, interspersed with colorful quotations and intriguing odds and ends, like the price of one eight-room townhouse in New York City in 1940: $2,600.

In a similar vein, Our Time: The History of the 20th Century (Turner Publishing, 713 pp., $65), co-created by Walter Bernard, Milton Glaser, Daniel Okrent; editor in chief Lorraine Glennon offers a tour of the years 1900 to 1994, featuring news-magazine style mini-articles of noteworthy events and substantive excerpts for movies, speeches, and other documents of the time. (There's a page from Dreiser's novel ''Jennie Gerhardt''.) Each decade is prefaced by an essay by a current well-known writer on a pertinent topic: Stephen Spender on totalitarianism for the 1930s, Arthur C. Clarke on the space age for the 1950s, Stephen Jay Gould on environmentalism for the 1970s.

And for those who'd like a vacation from the 20th century - and for ancient history buffs - Chris Scarre's Chronicles of the Roman Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial Rome (Thames and Hudson, 240 pp., $29.95) offers a nicely illustrated, straightforwardly written survey of the politics and personalities of the motley array of men who ruled Rome from 31 BC to AD 476.

Trenchant quotations from the emperors' contemporaries are balanced with the assessments of modern-day scholarship to provide lively and intriguing portraits of the famous, the infamous, and the relatively obscure, as well as a consideration of the age in which each ruled.

''A meaningful work is the production of a more or less identifiable artist. His achievement is relative to an outlook which is in the strict sense no one's but his,'' notes the late Sir Lawrence Gowing, general editor of A Biographic Dictionary of Artists (Facts on File, 784 pp., $50). A massive and massively inclusive volume, well-illustrated, with solidly researched entries on the famous and the obscure, from ancient times to today, including non-Western artists, this book will be a valuable and delightful addition to any library. A helpful glossary of art terms will aid beginners in enjoying the hours of fascinating reading and looking at pictures afforded here.