Coffee-Table Books Are Books, Too 

They're big, they're boldly illustrated -- but does anyone read them?

Americans are wildly self-indulgent but careful to cloak this in excuses. SUVs are not lethal weapons, they're roomy family cars. Big Macs are not overpriced grease grenades, they're fast godsends for workers on the go.

But coffee-table books cannot be cloaked in the guise of anything efficient or economical. They are the publishing industry's toy poodles. Like coffins and bon-voyage cards, they're just not the sort of item you buy for your own use. They are made to be given away.

The giver need only know one thing, anything, about the recipient. She has tattoos. He watches CSI. She has a framed Georges Braque print. Bingo. Coffee-table books on urban primitives, forensics, Cubists, packaged neatly so as to say, See? I know exactly what you love.

But does anyone actually read them? After that obligatory leaf-through -- crumpled wrapping paper rustling on the floor -- pretty much not. Indulgence: They're so big, they take too long to read, their flamboyance smothers the eyes, their heft and high price demand careful handling. Easier to put them on display but shut, words and pictures dwelling within, unseen, like rolled-up prayers inside mezuzahs.

These books occupy a perverse literary netherworld: seldom read, almost never reviewed. Knowing this, publishers often pad the pretty pictures with cringeworthy text, cutting costs on authors and editors, knowing the shopper won't look inside too intently either.

Take a stand against big unread books. Boycott bad coffee-table volumes, buy good ones and, before wrapping them, read them. That way, at least someone will.

Tupac: Resurrection (Atria, $25.95) savors the short sharp life of doomed rapper Shakur, told mostly in his own words, with song lyrics ("Never touched a gat I couldn't shoot") and letters from jail in which the convicted rapist muses about his scrotum. ... Remarkably, testicles also figure prominently in Kurt Cobain Journals (Riverhead, $19.95), a collection of writings so personal as to render their publication a gross intrusion -- but who can resist scrawled cries for help such as "The joke's on you so kill yourself"? Kurt's final journal entry concerns the "ball sacks" of Alaskan fishermen. ... James Henke's boxed Lennon: Legend (Chronicle, $40) comes with detachable novelties -- faux tix, fliers, lyric sheets -- a gimmick some would call too, too postmodern. ... For those whose taste in dead singers runs to feedback, Keith Shadwick's huge, exquisitely detailed Jimi Hendrix: Musician (Backbeat) is a virtual museum and a bargain at $34.95.

Bay Area picture books are nearly foolproof. Featuring the work of 150-year-old Moulin Studios, Vintage San Francisco (Welcome, $16.95) revives vanished landscapes in silky black and white. San Francisco: Portrait of an Estuary (UC Press, $34.95) sets David Sanger's bold wetlands photography against John Hart's expert text about what lives and dies there. Dennis E. Anderson's Hidden Treasures of San Francisco Bay (Heyday, $29.95) is easy sea-and-city eye candy. ... In California Calls You (Windgate, $45), museum curators KD Kurutz and Gary Kurutz use vintage travel posters (poppies! missions! mountains!) to narrate the state's cunning efforts at self-promotion. From the same Sausalito-based publisher, Glenn Koch's San Francisco: Golden Age Postcards ($100) reproduces nearly one thousand vintage cards in blood-racingly rich hues.

Art's a safe bet if you pick the right artist. Diane Arbus: Revelations (Random House, $100) is the SFMOMA show's catalogue, casting a potent spell on the strong-of-heart. ... One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (Museum of New Mexico, $29.95) features graceful masterworks from Japan's last great woodblock artist, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. ... Art and celebrity merge in Kerry Diamond's lush Kevin Aucoin: A Beautiful Life (Atria, $30): Makeup master Aucoin was the first choice of superstars and supermodels until his early death in 2001.

Laurie Susan Kahn's Sleepaway (Workman, $15.95) kindles all-girl summer-camp nostalgia. ... David Paul Bayles' quirkily haunting photographs in Urban Forest (Sierra Club, $35) reveal the heroism of trees that live among humans. ... Nuts-and-bolts advice augments architect Robert Knight's A House on the Water (Taunton, $34.95), drumming up dreams of shoreside living. ... Firsthand accounts and tear-jerking art in Dan van der Vat's hefty D-Day: The Greatest Invasion (Bloomsbury, $40) might just make you a patriot. ... UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library yielded the pix that pack Susan Snyder's ursuline trove Bear in Mind (Heyday, $60): Smells like school spirit.

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