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Five beautiful books for the most important people in your life

Reuters/Ognen Teofilovski
Never too many.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

It’s compulsive gift-buying season, and like every year, at least for a few days, bookstores will be full. Because everyone knows it: When in doubt, get ’em a book.

As an alternative to the holiday bestseller list, here are a few recommendations sure to please some of the hardest—and best—categories of humans to please.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

2015 has been a good year for feminism: the “f-word” is being used more widely and proudly, and even Barbie has finally realized she can be whomever she pleases. For the feminists in your life, or for those who need a little inspiration to become one, there might be no better present than Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg ($19.99).

The hardcover volume, published by HarperCollins, tells the story of justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), who’s been an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States since 1993, and has served with both lightness and depth. The authors, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, wrote a book that’s fun to read even when it gets into legal complexities: the annotated opinions of RBG in some landmark cases where she defended women’s rights provide context and explanations to her decision, while highlighting the most poignant passages.

Somewhere in between a biography and a fan book, Notorious RBG gives the justice the treatment usually reserved for celebrities and stars—because she is one. The book is fun—containing gems such as the illustrated guide to “The Notorious RGB Workout” and a quick “How To be Like RBG”—but also profound and inspiring to learn how this talented, hard-working woman to achieve goals that matched her ambitions.

Photo by Matthew Winters
A very young fan’s tribute to the Notorious RBG.

JR: Can Art Change the World?

JR is anonymous French street artist and photographer. He has gained international fame since he won the $100,000 TED Prize for his project, Inside Out, in which he printed building-sized portraits outside the shacks of slums around the world.

Image courtesy of /Phaidon
Women are Heroes: Morro da Providência favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2008

JR’s photographs, beginning with Expo 2 Rue (2001-2004), a series of images pasted on the streets of Paris, have appeared all over the world and grown in size, becoming building-sized images covering the the outside of shacks in Latin America‘s favelas or the walls of Israel and Palestine (both part of Inside Out). His work is art as much as it is activism, addressing important social issues—poverty, the female condition. The monograph published by Phaidon is the most extensive collection so far of his impressive body of work.

Image courtesy of /Phaidon
Elmar, Flatiron Plaza, New York, 2015

Can Art Change the World? ($59.95) asks the title, and the answer he gives: “Art is not supposed to change the world, but to change perceptions, Art can change the way we see the world.”

A perfect gift for artistically inclined activists, socially conscious artists and slacktivists at large, the collection also includes JR’s collaborations with different ballet groups which resulted in a performance in Paris and an installation in New York City’s Lincoln Center. Further, the volume features JR’s work with Blu, an artist working with stop-motion videos and graffiti, famed director David Lynch, and Maus‘s author, cartoonist Art Spiegelman, all collaborated with JR, often drawing or painting over his photographic installations.

Image courtesy of /Phaidon

Expanding Universe: Photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope has been in orbit for over 25 years. It was launched in April 1990, and through its lens, the telescope has helped sharpen our understanding of the universe. Built by NASA with assistance from the European Space Agency, Hubble has contributed to the discovery of new galaxies—the furthest at a mind-boggling distance of 13 billion light years from us.

Arguably, the most important thing Hubble has done is take captivating pictures of the universe. “The Hubble is the people’s telescope,” writes John Mace Grunsfeld in Expanding Universe: Photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope ($69.99), a book published by Taschen that collects some of the most incredible shots taken by the telescope in the past two and a half decades.

The images from Hubble are known to be a thing of mesmerizing beauty—so much so that they make for the best advent calendar this side of the Milky Way—and this volume collecting the best of them is just the thing for the daydreaming geeks in your life.

The pictures are breathtaking, as is the thought that all this lies millions of light years from us, and this book isn’t simply a wonderful object to look at, but a reminder that our scientific achievement can reach even beyond our imagination.

Photo courtesy of NASA, ESA, and Hubble Heritage
Eagle nebula.

Body of Art

The human body has always been a natural subject of art. Hand stencils from 13,500 years ago and Kara Walker’s ”African/American,” Man Ray’s ”Violin” and Caravaggio’s “The Raising of Lazarus,” Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” and 1,200 B.C. Mexican figurines: Body of Art, a volume published by Phaidon ($59.95), contains them all, and hundreds more.

A surprisingly simple concept, Body of Art offers a fascinating look at how the body has been seen, explored, and venerated through the eyes of all kinds of artists. Sculptures, painting, photographs, even objects: the selection is broad and includes both famous masterpieces and unexpected discoveries.

Themes are highlighted in the volume, which explores the way the body relates to the most important realms of our life—ultimately, to life itself. Beauty, power, sex, religion: the body is at the core, defining the parameters of our mortal experience.

Unlike the art volumes dedicated to a single artists, or a single art current, Body of Art has the unique quality of including a wide variety of styles and authors, which makes it surprising and unique. Beautiful and sensual, this is a book for art lovers—or for lovers, full stop.

Image courtesy of Phaidon

Codex Seraphinianus

Codex Seraphinianus is a book unlike any other. It was written in 1981 by Luigi Serafini, an Italian artist, architect, and industrial designer, and since its first, limited edition publication, it has inspired the work of geniuses of the likes of Roland Barthes, Italo Calvino, Douglas Hofstadter, who wrote about its meaning and intricacies.

The meaning and intricacies are not easy to define since the Codex is the imaginary encyclopedia of an imaginary world—written in an imaginary language. Fishlike animals are the color of the rainbow, circular trees that swim across rivers—this is a volume that exudes magic.




Weird and mysterious, this is the kind of object that might live inside a Borges’s book—it’s surreal, and yet so very real, unintelligible, yet begging to be decoded. Like a riddle with infinite answers, none of which quite correct enough, none of which wrong, this is not a present for the faint of mind. Rizzoli’s edition is expensive ($125) and worth it. Give it wisely—to the ones who deserve your soul, your heart, your imagination.

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