CHRISTMAS is the season when bookstore offerings increasingly take on the appearance of objets d'art, as if to confirm our uneasiness about the commercialization of the holiday spirit with further evidence of material splendor overshadowing spiritual substance - or at the least, of sumptuous pictures overwhelming words. But dwelling too much on the contrast between words and pictures, content and form, can be misleading, for it disguises the many ways ideas and images flow into each other. Picasso: Collected Writings (New York: Abbeville Press. 440 pp., including 184 facsimile manuscripts, $150) is a case in point. Like many of his contemporaries in the arts, Picasso was fascinated by the opposition and convergence of word and image. Between 1935 and 1959, he produced more than 340 quasi-poetic texts and two plays. As the facsimiles in this luxurious volume demonstrate, Picasso's writings veer into calligraphy, sometimes into colors and images. The line of writing becomes the line of drawing. This book is sure to be a collector's item, although its appeal is likely to be limited by the fact that Picasso's writings are either in French (untranslated) or in Spanish (translated into French). Only the editorial and introductory materials by Michel Leiris, Marie-Laure Bernadac, and Christine Piot have been translated into English by Carol Volk and Albert Bensoussau.
Far more accessible - if less complete as a collection - Andrew Kagan's Chagall, in Abbeville's Modern Masters Series (128 pp., 112 illustrations, 48 in color, $29.95 cloth; $19.95 paper) tells the moving story of an artist whose poetic imagination transformed memories of a Hasidic upbringing (where the visual arts were not highly valued) into brilliant, dream-like visions.
C'ezanne in Provence is the 12th book in the visually stunning series of art books by Jacqueline and Maurice Guillard (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, $65), who also gave us the recent ``Raphael: Grace of an Angel, Force of Genius'' in the same series. Brilliant reproductions on heavy stock - and in special cases, parchment-like onionskin paper - capture the color, texture, and scope of the originals.
Evidence that realism is alive and well in American landscape painting can be found in John Arthur's Spirit of Place: Contemporary Landscape Painting and the American Tradition (Boston: Little, Brown/Bulfinch Press, 160 pp., 77 color and 25 black-and-white illustrations, $50). Examining the work of 19th-century and contemporary artists, this book discovers a flourishing, many-branched tradition of realism that includes everything from photo realism to romantic and expressionist realism - rather a neat trick until one realizes that ``realism'' is being used here very broadly to designate any form of representational (as distinguished from abstract) painting. The lively text and lovely, well-chosen illustrations testify to the strength of this return to - realism? - representationalism? - at any rate, to images that are more readily recognizable.
Dirt tracks, overgrown trails, two-lane highways snaking through deserts, canyons, forests, and farms - in short, anything but interstates - figure in Winston Swift Boyer's photographs of American Roads, with an introduction by William Least Heat-Moon (Boston: Bulfinch Press, 64 color illustrations, $50). These roads blending into landscapes suggest that travel itself is a function of following wherever the eye may lead.
England's first novelist, Daniel Defoe, was also among the first to take a ``modern'' look at his country in 1724. The abridged edition of A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, by Pat Rogers (London: Michael Joseph, distributed by Viking Penguin, 240 pp., $29.95) features photos by Simon McBride. Some scenes may have looked much the same to Defoe; others show the changes wrought by time. Although the book looks like a picture book, Defoe's vigorous text dominates.
Those who wish to delve into the dramatic, complicated story of Defoe's life as spy, journalist, felon, merchant, and novelist will find a reliable guide in Paula R. Backscheider's well-written, finely researched Daniel Defoe: His Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 672 pp., illustrated, $29.95).
As unlike Defoe's as can be imagined, the career and character of Henry Adams are brought into sharp focus in Ernest Samuels' newly revised, substantially abridged, one-volume version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning three-volume biography completed in 1964. Henry Adams (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press/Belknap, 504 pp., illustrated, $25) affords a golden opportunity to read a shorter version of an important biography, incorporating new research and presenting a more cogent portrait of its subject than the longer one.
Who better than that consummate Anglophile born in the United States, Henry James, to sketch a verbal picture of the landscape, cityscape, people, and customs of England in the late 19th century? Newest in a series that includes ``Henry James in Italy'' and ``A Little Tour in France,'' English Hours, by Henry James (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 222 pp., $24.95) is beautifully produced and colorfully illustrated with paintings and drawings from the period when James was writing.
For those who cannot get their fill of Anglophilia, five more titles are of interest: Rob Talbot's gorgeous color photos of The English Lakes, text by Robin Whiteman (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 160 pp., $22.95); Shakespeare's Avon, by the same team (New York: Viking, 160 pp., $24.95); The Tower of London: An Illustrated History, by Russell Chamberlin, photos by Simon McBride (London: Webb & Bower, distributed by Viking, 128 pp., $27.50), Charles Viney's Sherlock Holmes in London (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 168 pp., $24.95), a collection of period photographs illustrating locales mentioned in Conan Doyle's stories; and a charming choice for children or adults, Queen Mary's Dolls' House, by Mary Stewart-Wilson, photos by David Cripps (New York: Abbeville Press, 192 pp., $35), featuring big, full-color close-ups of the ingenious furnishings and fixtures of the famous dolls' house presented to Queen Mary in 1924. It's a closer view of the wealth of miniaturized detail than most visitors to Windsor Castle manage to see.
For those who prefer full-size furniture, Sotheby's Concise Encyclopedia of Furniture, editor Christopher Payne (New York: Harper & Row, 208 pp., $49.95) offers a clear overview of furniture from ancient to modern times, complete with a glossary and copious illustrations. Indeed, there are fascinating reference books to suit all sorts of people on one's gift list: from The Middle Ages: A Concise Encyclopedia, editor H.R. Loyn (New York: Thames & Hudson, distributed by Norton, 352 pp., illustrated, $39.95) to The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke (New York: Viking, 1,378 pp., $40), with entries on jazz, blues, rock, reggae, folk, and other nonclassical artists.
Photographs by Robert Koropp in Denver: The City Rises, text by Lito Tejada-Flores (Denver: Swallow Hill Press, 157 pp., $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper) capture the dynamic quality of the city and its natural setting. The special blending of art and nature that characterizes Italian gardens can be seen in The Gardens of Venice, by Mary Jane Pool (New York: Rizzoli, 240 pp., $45). Alessandro Albrizzi's sumptuous photographs are arranged to show a chronological order of gardens dating from various centuries. For those who plan to visit in person, a map is included. John Julius Norwich, author of ``A History of Venice,'' once again displays his talent for making the past come alive in Byzantium: The Early Centuries (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 408 pp., illustrated, $29.95), threading his way through Byzantine intricacies with his knack for strong narration and clear exposition.
A year that marked the 60th anniversary of her birth saw the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition (New York: Doubleday, 719 pp., illustrated, $30). Prepared by the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation, edited by David Barnouw and Gerrold van der Stroom, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans and B.M. Mooyaart-Doubleday, this authoritative edition features three parallel texts: Anne Frank's first and second drafts, side by side with the slightly expurgated version published in the US in 1952. The words and thoughts of this charming teenager ring as brightly and plangently today as in the dark days when she penned them. This edition also includes material on the family history of the Franks, their arrest, betrayal, deportation, and the fates of the family and of Anne's writings.
To end with one of the books I most enjoyed reading this past year: The esoteric-sounding title, Mi-Lou: Poetry and the Labyrinth of Desire, by Stephen Owen (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 220 pp., $29.95) is as far removed from the labyrinths and cautious hedges of standard academic prose as the spirit of lyric poetry - Oriental and Occidental, modern and ancient - that it discusses so engagingly. The gist of Owen's argument is well worth pondering: ``We have been informed that we are radically `of' our age, or culture, or gender, or class, and not of another; we can go elsewhere only as tourists, cultural voyeurs. ... This is an unpleasant story. Let's change the ending. ... We confess that we never believed in ... all those finely drawn boundaries between periods, cultures, and languages: we can make our home anywhere.''