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.
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.
Metaphysics. Epistemology. Wittgenstein. These are words we often hear - or even use - without always being sure exactly who or what they designate. Although in some ways an arcane field, philosophy is more a part of daily life than might be supposed, involving, as it does, questions about the nature of truth, justice, and ethics; the workings of logic and language; and the reliability of our perceptions. Problems pondered by Plato, Confucius, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Sartre can be found in two outstanding reference books: The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich (Oxford University Press, 1,010 pp., $49.95) and The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, general editor Robert Audi (Cambridge University Press, 882 pp., $89.95, hardcover, $27.95 paperback.) Although either by itself is an excellent guide, each contains entries that the other lacks. And even when covering the same subject, each provides a slightly different account, so that the two (unintentionally, one assumes) supplement rather than duplicate each other.
Both offer detailed disquisitions on topics such as logic, determinism, Epicureanism, and game theory. ''The Cambridge Dictionary'' also gives us ''creationism,'' ''Maya,'' and ''Mao Tse-Tung,'' while ''The Oxford Companion'' offers unique entries on ''love,'' ''marriage,'' ''friendship,'' and ''deaths of philosophers.'' The latter also has surveys of English, French, Indian, Byzantine, Swedish, and other national philosophical traditions, as well as portrait galleries featuring the photographs (or paintings or sculptures) of various eminent philosophers.
For ready reference, no jazz lover should be without The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, a comprehensive 1,358-page opus edited by Barry Karafield (St. Martins Press, $50). Black-and-white photographs and drawings accompany alphabetized entries on the performers, composers, styles and history of jazz, not to mention record labels, clubs, and festivals. The individual contributors and noted experts, contribute enlightening discussions of terms such as ''swing,'' ''blues,'' ''big band,'' ''bop,'' ''improvisation,'' including a very helpful survey-history of ''jazz'' itself by James Lincoln Collier.
The classics always make thoughtful gifts. Well worthy of fresh consideration, the familiar yet perhaps still underrated work of Robert Frost is newly available in Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays (The Library of American/Viking Penguin USA, 1,036 pp., $35). Edited by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson, this remarkably complete yet easy-to-handle volume contains all the old favorites and many less known but equally interesting poems - along with Frost's curmudgeonly lectures, letters, and essays, and his rather strange dramatic works.
A graceful new translation of Thomas Mann's masterpiece The Magic Mountain, by John E. Woods (Alfred A. Knopf, 706 pp., $35) captures the ironic subtleties of the German original, while providing a smoother English narrative than H.T. Lowe-Porter's pioneering rendition undertaken in the 1920s.
An interesting literary and artistic event, Herman Melville's novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities has come out in a special edition, with pictures by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins, 449 pp., $30). Edited by Melville scholar Herschel Parker, this so-called ''Kraken Edition'' is based on the book that Melville originally planned to deliver to his publishers, before he decided to add some material on his hero's forays in the literary world. Melville belatedly invented these forays after quarreling with his publishers, who were disappointed with the lukewarm reception accorded his previous book, ''Moby Dick.'' The earlier, shorter version of ''Pierre,'' Herschel feels, is tauter and more unified. Sendak's illustrations suggest the nature of the ''ambiguities'' that beleaguer the novel's idealistic, erotically repressed hero.
For younger readers, the Everyman's Library Children's Classics series has issued a charming, red-covered edition of Lewis Carroll's two Alice stories: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, with the original Victorian drawings by John Tenniel (Alfred A. Knopf, 327 pp., $12.95). It's attractively designed, with a ribbon bookmark, striking end papers, and a place for the child to write his or her name.
A perfect stocking-stuffer for fans of Victoriana is a tiny softcover book featuring The Designs of William Morris, who was Carroll's contemporary. All pictures, no text, this is a colorful collection of the artist's designs for wallpapers, carpets, fabrics, stained-glass windows, et al., (Phaidon/Chronicle, $8.95.)
A designer who revolutionized feminine dress in the 20th century, Coco Chanel, is the subject of Chanel: The Couturiere at Work, by Amy de la Haye and Shelley Tobin (Overlook, 136 pp., $35). Copiously illustrated with photographs and drawings, this book examines Chanel's life, with the emphasis on her work as a designer, and provides a fascinating look at how her designs changed through the decades, from the teens to the 1970s, while retaining certain classic elements.
The commodious elegance of the Georgian style of architecture, we learn from Steven Parissien's The Georgian House in Britain and America (Rizzoli, 240 pp., illustrated, $60), is based on a respect for Palladian principles of proportion. This handsome book defines, depicts, and celebrates the architectural and interior designs of this period spanning most of the 18th and the early decades of the 19th centuries in Britain and America. It also offers instructions on repairing, maintaining, or emulating Georgian-style and craftsmanship, with individual chapters devoted to the fine details of sash windows, fanlights, doors, brickwork, floors, ironwork, and much more.
Somewhat less ambitious in scope, Teddy Bears: A Complete Guide to History, Collecting, and Care, by Sue Pearson and Dottie Ayers (MacMillan, 180 pp., $19.95), features fetching photographs of teddies from many lands and manufacturers. It also offers tips about what to look for when purchasing collectible bears and how to clean and repair bedraggled ones.
One of the greatest art collectors of all time was the French King Francis I (1494-1547), whose ambitious assemblages of artworks formed the foundation of what much later became the Louvre. A generous patron of the arts, he sought out the works of Italian artists in particular, including Raphael, Titian, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Cellini, and is widely credited with bringing the Renaissance to France. The Collection of Francis I: Royal Treasures, by Janet Cox-Rearick (Abrams/Ponds Mercator, Antwerp, 493 pp., $150) is, like the monarch's collection, a conspicuously magnificent, indeed monumental, enterprise, designed to impress. It offers an extensive catalogue of the many splendid artifacts Francis acquired, and informative chapters discussing his life, his acquisitions, and his aims - political, cultural, and personal - in acquiring them.
Francis was also responsible for the world-famous chateaux Chambord and Fontainebleau, the building and design of which are also treated here. At a time when government patronage of the fine arts has become a debated topic, it is interesting to examine the unusual blend of elements - from good taste and love of art to a desire for public display and self-commemoration - that motivated this monarch and shaped the content of his collection.
A far cry from princely panoply and the religious and mythological splendors of the Italian and French Renaissance, Dutch art has generally focused on the daily lives of ordinary people, prompting George Eliot's poignant encomium to its homely truthfulness: ''I turn, without shrinking, from . . . prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors, to an old woman bending over her flower-pot, or eating her solitary dinner.'' Dutch Painting, 1600-1800, by Seymour Slive (Yale University Press Pelican History of Art, 378 pp., $65), takes us into that vividly real-looking world of prosperous burghers, sturdy artisans, all-but-edible herrings, fruits, and vegetables, carefully observed landscapes and seascapes. They are all rendered with impeccable care by artists like Vermeer, Rembrandt, van Ruisdael, de Borch, and de Hooch. The wide selection of painting amply represents the scope of the periods covered, and there is also an enlightening discussion of the surprisingly turbulent historical times in which these seemingly serene works were created.