Editor's choices

Those big, beautiful books often known as coffeetable books can be tempting. One finds them in bookstores and buys them as gifts -- on impulse. Often the beauty is only skin deep. I have gone through this season's haul of big, beautiful books and picked the best ones. These won't disappoint. Pride of place goes to Ireland, by Dervla Murphy, photographs by Klaus Francke. (Salem N.H.: Salem House. 208 pp. $24.95.)

``Ireland'' represents to an unanticipated degree what I look for in all big, beautiful books: beauty of image subordinated to a worthy purpose. All the books commented on below live up to that description.

``Ireland'' not only lives up to but transcends the standards I have set for books reviewed in this column.

Dervla Murphy, a native of the Republic of Ireland, is a travel writer of great distinction, as well as author of ``A Place Apart,'' a book about Northern Ireland that won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize. She has traveled widely, and her new book benefits from the perspective she gained in the mountains of Nepal and elsewhere.

In ``Ireland,'' Murphy argues persuasively that, given the complex jigsaw puzzle that is Ireland, Northern Ireland's union with Britain, like southern Ireland's dream of one Ireland, is a destructive fantasy. In good Irish fashion she concedes that reality has not been Ireland's strong point, but she has not given up. Indeed, she presents her picture of Ireland with verve, humor, and compassion.

As she comes to the end of what is really a splendid, long essay, she argues that the North should negotiate independence for itself from Britain. One reads these pages with some emotion, for last week Ian Paisley has quit the Parliament in response to a favorable vote on the Thatcher plan to give the republic a hand in the political life of the North.

``Ireland'' is extremely well written. And Murphy's passionate, detached, and occasionally sardonic commentary on her homeland is focused, sometimes with a shock, by the photographs by Francke. Black and white and color pictures of varying size and mood constitute a visual counterpoint and slow the reader down, often against his will. They implicate the reader in the text. This interrelation is the ideal one in a book such as this, it seems to me.

There are two other interesting coffeetable books about Ireland this season: ``Irish Traditions'' (from Harry N. Abrams Inc.) and ``Ireland from the Air'' (Crown), which has a text by Benedict Kiely, author of ``Nothing Ever Happens in Carmincross'' (see review on opposite page). Look at them; enjoy them. But if you like your Irish straight, read ``Ireland.''

Here are brief notes on other big, beautiful books available now:

The Audubon Society Book of Wild Cats, by Les Line and Edward R. Ricciuti (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 256 pp. $50), offers a vivid, informative text and photographs, many of them on double pages explaining all manner of cats, in action and at rest. Splendid! There are a lot of cat books out now, and this is the best.

Cellini, by John Pope-Hennessy (New York: Abbeville Press Inc. 324 pp. $85), is a superb amplification of Benevenuto Cellini's autobiography: authoritative, scholarly, and readable. The photographs by David Finn and others are breathtaking. For many this book will reveal the delicate, noble sensuousness of Cellini's sculpture for the first time. It's a book for all lovers of Renaissance art, and all lovers of life.

Distinguished (white) photographer John Running has collected 160 photographs (90 in stunning color) from the last 15 years of work on Indian reservations to produce Honor Dance: Native American Photographs (Reno, Nev.: University of Nevada Press. 154 pp. $40). Indians from many tribes, in a wide variety of contexts, provide an honest, eloquent, compassionate, and beautiful commentary on the native American today.

The Monastic Realm, by Reginald Gregoire (New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc. 288 pp. $65), does the work of several big art books and also provides lively, scholarly, fascinating commentary by three French scholars on the period AD 900-1150. Almost 300 illustrations, 79 in color, present the rare magnificence of buildings, sculpture, manuscripts, enamelwork, and other media. The book provides inspiration and perspective for the world-weary and worldly modern reader.

What a good idea! A big -- no, a huge -- book combining state-of-the-art color plates (which can be four pages across) and texts from friends, visitors, critics, and scholars of the great Monet. Monet: A Retrospective, edited by Charles F. Stuckey (New York: Hugh Levin Associates Inc., distributed by Scribner Book Companies. 384 pp. $60 through Dec. 31), is a fitting monument to one of the true heroes of modern art.

In Scottish Symphony (photographs by Michael Ruetz, introduction by David Attenborough; Boston: Little, Brown & Co., a New York Graphic Society Book. 158 pp. $49), subtle and continuous gradations of gray are punctuated by emeralds of moss and mustard yellows of rape. There are no people. Very wide pages allow the land and seascape to stretch the imagination. The captions -- on heavy, nonglossy, dark gray pages -- are taken from the accounts by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson of their walking tri p to Scotland. Exceptional craft went into this book.

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