IF you're bargain-hunting for last-minute gift books this year, a paperback may be the right choice for someone's stocking - and your pocketbook.
Take a look at the Abrams "Discoveries" series, an assortment of elegant small volumes written by French scholars who are experts in each subject. Printed in Italy (Harry N. Abrams, $12.95 each), these mini-references are richly illustrated in color on every glossy page. Each has an index and an appendix of related material called "Documents" that packs a lot of supplementary information into a small space. Notable new volumes include Newton: the Father of Modern Astronomy, by Jean-Pierre Maury (144 pp.) , The Sky, Mystery, Magic, and Myth, by Jean-Pierre Maury (200 pp.), Rembrandt: Master of the Portrait, by Pascal Bonafoux (176 pp.), and The Search for Ancient Greece, by Roland and Francoise Etienne (176 pp.).
If the story of Greek archaeology whets your appetite for more classic culture, the most recent reprinting of Robert Graves's Greek Myths (Penguin, 224 pp., $16) may be a good choice. This handsome, large-format, profusely illustrated volume is a reprint of the 1981 condensed version of Graves's original 1955 telling of these tales.
For nature lovers on your list, consider two new reprints in Penguin's Nature Library series. Birch Browsings: A John Burroughs Reader, edited by Bill McKibben (231 pp., $12), and A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, by John Muir (218 pp., $12), are American classics. Either would slip easily into the outside pouch of a hiker's backpack.
Heftier in content as well as in size is a reprint of Charles A. Lindbergh's posthumously published Autobiography of Values (Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 40 pages of illustrations, 426 pp., $14.95), a testament to his growing concern for the environment at the end of his life. An introduction by his daughter Reeve sums up Lindbergh's concern: "Can we find a way to keep nature and technology in balance?"
Fiction reprints in paper abound in every season. The popularity of three movies based on E.M. Forster novels, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Room with a View, and Howards End, spurred Carroll & Graf to republish all three stories plus The Longest Journey in one volume (857 pp., $17.95). Don't count on the spine of this fat, densely printed book surviving a cover-to-cover reading, though. The introduction by novelist Louis Auchincloss discusses the stories in the context of what he sees as Forster's "more
important" work, "A Passage to India," which was also made into a movie.
For a different fiction retrospective, three of Paule Marshall's novels are now in soft covers: Daughters (Plume, 408 pp., $11), The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (Vintage, 472 pp., $13), and Praisesong for the Widow (Plume, 256 pp., $9). Praised for her sensitive, sometimes epic portrayal of black women, Marshall is perhaps best known for her 1959 novel, "Brown Girl, Brownstones."
Excerpts from stories by women who wrote about their lives appear in a collection edited by scholar Jill Ker Conway, who told her own story of growing up in Australia in "The Road From Coorain." An original paperback, not a reprint, Written by Herself, Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology (Vintage, 672 pp., $15) begins with a 19th-century freed slave's account and includes selections by scientists, artists, pioneers, and reformers, some from works now out of print. Conway says her aim was "to present the most powerful female voices commenting on the American experience over the century and a half since women began writing memoirs in significant numbers." It's a provocative, inspiring, and sometimes poignant anthology.
If you're looking for something lighter - and smaller - for a mini-gift, perhaps you'll find the right thing in the Shambhala Pocket Classics series. Priced at $6 each, these tiny tomes offer a taste of quite an eclectic range of literary gems, such as Duino Elegies, poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke (113 pp.), or The Art of Peace (126 pp.), John Stevens's translation of the sayings of Morihei Ueshiba, founder of the Japanese martial art of Aikido.
And if there's a palm-sized corner left in a cat-lover's stocking, tuck in a copy of The New Yorker Book of Cat Cartoons (Alfred A. Knopf, 104 pp., $8). It's fun even if you don't own a cat.
Happy new read to all!