SOME books are a gift even before they take on the physical form of a manufactured object with printed pages sewn or glued into a cloth, cardboard, or leather binding. Words are still our most concise and accurate way of recording and evoking experience, and the reciprocal acts of writing and reading still the surest means of sharing our experiences and subjecting them to the process of reflection.
As someone who loves books, but who tends to nod off when the subject turns to the technical aspects of book-making (typeface, printing, binding, and so on), I can happily report that The Smithsonian Book of Books, by Michael Olmert (Smithsonian Books, 320 pp., $45), presents these topics in wonderfully readable fashion, never losing sight of the spirit conveyed by the letter. Starting with ancient scrolls, proceeding through medieval illuminated manuscripts, on through the revolutionary invention of mov able type, down to mass distribution and modern times, this beautifully illustrated guide is full of fascinating information and lively anecdotes that make it a pleasure to sip - or to read from cover to cover.
An exquisite gift for anyone who has wished it were possible to own an illuminated manuscript, the Getty Museum's compact, boxed facsimile of the 16th-century model book of calligraphy, Mira calligraphiae monumenta, by Lee Hendrix and Thea Vignau-Wilberg (Getty Museum, 412 pp., $125), displays 170 plates showing the extraordinarily varied calligraphic styles of the Renaissance scribe Georg Bocskay, accompanied by the colorful, delicately detailed pictures of plant and animal life added to the manuscript 30 years later by Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel. Introductory essays explain the cultural background of an age when writing aspired to the visual beauty of art and the visual arts of drawing and painting claimed to rival words in describing the natural world.
At the other end of the price scale, Jazz, by Henri Matisse, translated by Sophie Hawkes and introduced by Riva Castleman (George Braziller, $10.95), reproduces the artist's boldly colored collage illustrations and the handwritten text he wrote to accompany them. It's an elegant and cheerful distillation of the Modernist spirit in art.
Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) may well be the most neglected of the Impressionist painters and the one who stayed closest to the original guiding spirit of the Impressionist movement. Now, along with the major exhibition of his work on view at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, which will be coming to the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore next March, two new books give him his due. Alfred Sisley, edited by MaryAnne Stevens (Yale University Press, 300 pp., $50), is a descriptive catalog based on the current exhibitio n, preceded by three essays: Christopher Lloyd on Sisley's special style, William R. Johnston on the painter's influence in America, and Caroline Durand-Ruel Godfroy on his relationship with his dealer. Richard Shone's Sisley (Harry N. Abrams, 240 pp., $60) offers a more straightforward biographical approach, with new research on the hidden difficulties - largely financial - the artist had to cope with. Both books are beautifully illustrated in color and black-and-white, each containing some works not inclu ded in the other. Shone's text is perhaps the more cogent and readable, and the reproductions of the paintings somewhat more clearly defined. Stevens's edition features some particularly lovely paintings and is organized in a way that makes it easier to dip into.
It's hard to speak of the classics without resorting to cliche, but whether we call them the timeless legacy of ages past or books no library should be without, it's truth universally acknowledged that great books should be available to all. This year, 75 years after its original inception, Random House has relaunched the popular "Modern Library" series featuring inexpensive, attractive, authoritative hardcover editions of the world's most exciting and enduring books, from Aristotle and Jane Austen to Eu dora Welty and Voltaire. Titles available this season include the first two volumes of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time with the textual corrections recently incorporated in the definitive French edition (Swann's Way, Vol. I, 614 pp., $17.50; Within a Budding Grove, Vol. II, 749 pp., $18.50) and George Eliot's Middlemarch (799 pp., $19), a novel whose rich complexity puts much contemporary fiction to shame.
And from Alfred A. Knopf, also reinaugurated this year, the famous "Everyman's Library" offers the classic lineup - Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, and others - in still more elegant format, with sewn-in bookmarks and clear plastic covers for greater durability. Most volumes are available for $20 and under.
Drawn only from modern authors, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich's series, "HBJ Modern Classics," is more a supplement than a core collection. Offerings include Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (125 pp., $15.95), C. S. Lewis's The Four Loves (141 pp., $15.95), plus works by such distinguished writers as George Orwell, Thomas Merton, and Mary McCarthy, all in handsome hardcover format and styled in a uniform edition that makes them a good-looking addition to one's bookshelves, along with their obvious intrin sic merits.
REFERENCE books are also gifts that keep giving. For theater buffs, the new edition of The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre, edited by Phyllis Hartnoll and Peter Found (Oxford University Press, 568 pp., $35), provides an up-to-date guide to playwrights, actors, theaters, styles, and periods - indeed, just about everything from method acting to mime, Aeschylus to August Wilson, Punch and Judy to Joan Plowright. Although individual plays do not have separate entries, this volume gives solid coverage
of the theater in history and throughout the world from kabuki to "kitchen sink." For opera fans, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, edited by John Warrack and Ewan West (Oxford University Press, 782 pp., $40), performs a similar comprehensive function, with entries for specific operas.
Lovers of the American musical theater will find a treat in Ethan Mordden's Rodgers & Hammerstein (Harry N. Abrams, 224 pp., $45), a lavishly illustrated sort of glorified scrapbook taking the reader show-by-show from the famous pair's first collaboration, "Oklahoma!" to their last, "The Sound of Music." Mordden's text provides a diverting, informal, and informative backstage tour, replete with shoptalk and insightful criticism and appreciations.
Of more esoteric appeal, The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 1509-1659, edited by David Norbrook and H. R. Woudhysen (Penguin Press, 910 pp., $40), offers a fresh look at poetry from this important period of English literature. There are poems from the famous (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Sidney, Jonson, Donne), the well-known (Marvell, Wyatt, Herrick, Vaughan, Nashe, Herbert), and also a number of voices - some anonymous, some female - seldom included in previous anthologies. To show how poets func tioned in a socio-historical context, poems are grouped by subject matter: love poems, poems on public life, tributes to patrons. This lessens the reader's sense of each poet's individual voice and vision but provides an alternative way of looking at the Renaissance.
Halfway around the world in India (still undiscovered by the British), a variety of immensely talented painters flourished under the patronage of three successive emperors: Akbar (1556-1605), Jahangir (1605-1627), and Shah Jahan (1628-1658), builder of the Taj Mahal. In Indian Miniatures of the Mughal Court (Harry N. Abrams, 240 pp., $95), Amina Okada focuses on the careers and styles of individual artists - Moslem and Hindu - encouraged by the court. This look at a period of rich cultural influences is intriguing, and the pictures are truly sumptuous.
In another part of the globe, starting in the 16th century, cathedrals, castles, palaces, missions, monasteries, and monuments were going up in a New World. History of South American Colonial Art and Architecture, by Damian Bayon and Murillo Marx (Rizzoli, 444 pp., $85), chronicles the growth of architecture, sculpture, and painting from the 16th to the 19th century, region by region. This comprehensive, scholarly work stresses the wide diversity of accomplishment by Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and nat ive artists.
The fascinating story of an artistic prodigy is told in The Child Art of Peggy Somerville, by Stephen Reiss with Rosemary Somerville, foreword by Hugh Casson (Herbert Press, New Amsterdam Books, 96 pp., $25). Daughter of an artist-father and writer-mother, Peggy was turning out charming watercolors by the time she was three. Untutored, allowed to develop on her own, she had her first exhibition in 1928 at age 10, astonishing the public and impressing the critics with her unusual sense of color and abilit y to produce exactly the effects she wanted. As Reiss explains, she drew, for the most part, from her visual memory and imagination. Brought up in the country, she named "gypsies, cows, horses, and pigs" her favorite subjects - along with landscapes of field, stream, hillside, and seashore. This book presents a few of her works as an adult artist but focuses mainly on her extraordinary work as a child. It's a book that sets one thinking about art, creativity, and the capabilities of children who are given t he freedom and support to develop their gifts.