Hark, the Superheroes Sing 

Give and get books this year — before it's too late.

As old media goes, books are practically stone tablets. We can pretend they're not. We can pretend they're still as viable as ever, because enough of them still inhabit our surroundings as to look that way. They're still sleek and pretty, but then so were the last passenger pigeons. With bookshops vanishing and some 44 million Americans functionally illiterate, books inhabit a nostalgic limbo, a misty Puff-the-Magic-Dragon vale of good intentions and warm memories. We eye them guiltily: I should read you. But that would take, like, days.

Although their format is unnervingly inert — you can't post comments on them — books won't ever disappear. (Wait, did someone say that about burlesque?) But their purpose and meaning in our lives has changed: their undisputed role as what one reads. Poised on a cusp, they strive to reinvent themselves. Exchanging books as gifts these days is a noble, luminous gesture, like saving snuff bottles or visiting someone in the hospital.

Comics

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Just as Peter Parker merged with a spider, books and comics merged more than ever this year with graphic novels ranging from the eco-apocalyptic Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan's As the World Burns (Seven Stories, $14.95) — in which the US government lets space robots eat Earth, a dynamite-lighting one-eyed rabbit is a militant hero, and a sea turtle intones, "Stop making motor oil and drugs" — to the classic, as Stéphane Heuet renders Part Three of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past into comic form (NBM, $16.95), complete with slatey Euro-backdrops. Cursed for killing animals, a man gets electroshock therapy and his girlfriend dies over and over in Apollo's Song (Vertical, $19.95), Astroboy creator Osamu Tezuka's lovely and newly reissued 1970 epic.

More Comics

Even when they're not morphing into comics themselves, books are increasingly about comics, rhapsodizing their own probable conquerors. Jason Thompson reviews Were-slut, Happy Mania, Granny Mischief, Slayers Special, Tokyo Mew Mew a la Mode, and some thousand other Japanese comics in Manga: The Complete Guide (Del Rey, $19.95). In Howtoons (Collins, $15.99), MIT grads Saul Griffith and Joost Bonsen and artist Nick Dragotta show kids how to construct marshmallow shooters, water-bottle missiles, and other devices. "Will human beings end up as automatons? ... There are so many questions we need to ask," Christopher Knowles muses in Our Gods Wear Spandex (Weiser, $19.95), a history of superheroes. Given a metal skeleton, 57 percent of a road-accident victim becomes a cyborg in game designer Austin Grossman's novel Soon I Will Be Invincible (Pantheon, $22.95). A thirty-item museum in a box, The Marvel Vault (Running Press, $49.95) includes Marvel comics, cool retro cards, a Howard the Duck campaign sticker, and more.

Monsters

Novelties are more novel than novels when you have a shriveled attention span, which can in short spastic bursts skim Scott Francis' Monster Spotter's Guide to North America (How, $14.99) which includes the momo, the coonigator, and the chupacabra. Or Jane Moseley's How to Live with a Unicorn (Running Press, $12.95), a glossy illustrated guide to the care and feeding of gorgons, minotaurs, and other mythical creatures. ("Fun things to do with your hydra: Go fishing.") Novels merge with novelty as this year brings many mysteries starring offbeat sleuths: a 19th-century Turkish eunuch in Jason Goodwin's The Snake Stone (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $25), a Laotian coroner in Colin Cotterill's Anarchy and Old Dogs (Soho, $24), a gambling-addicted Danish clown in Peter Hoeg's The Quiet Girl (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $26), a lawyer-turned-monk in William Brodrick's The Gardens of the Dead (Penguin, $14), and an 11th-century Japanese civil servant in I.J. Parker's Island of Exiles (Penguin, $14).

More Monsters

Sleeping ever more wantonly with the enemy, publishers are scrambling to produce books about other, less inert entertainment formats: from scholarly ventures such as Undead TV: Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Duke University, $21.95), edited by Elana Levine and Lisa Parks — "Another Buffy book, you ask?" quips its press release — to the methylated cotton candy of Courtney Love's collected diaries, Dirty Blonde (Faber and Faber, $20), whose "I love being famous ... because it's psychicly charging" and "My Body the hand Grenade" rhetoric is habit-forming. Why dance to music when you can read about it in Wayne Robins' A Brief History of Rock, Off the Record (Routledge, $24.95) which tells us that a young Billy Joel was a member of the Hassles, and that Little Richard "communicated a joyous catharsis" — or Lashonda Katrice Barnett's I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on their Craft (Thunder's Mouth, $16.95), or Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music (Duke, $22.95), edited by Eric Weisbard, which declares Bobbie Gentry "the J.D. Salinger of rock and roll." Edited by Steven Jay Schneider, the bulky international 501 Movie Directors (Barron's, $29.99) notes, among much else, that Gordon Parks painted himself into a blaxploitation corner: "Later attempts to capitalize on the success of Shaft met with little success." David N. Meyer ponders Gram Parsons' beautiful corpse in Twenty Thousand Roads (Villard, $29.95). And with a bouncy, bracing lack of irony, Jeanine Basinger celebrates golden-age Hollywood in The Star Machine (Knopf, $35): Carmen Miranda's "daytime outfits puzzled everyone." And: "Is Porky Pig a star? Of course."

History

What's done is done — thus books so finite, in their increasingly arcane way — are apt reliquaries for history. This year's stunners include Reviel Netz and William Noel's The Archimedes Codex (Da Capo, $27.50), revealing how the works of antiquity's greatest mathematician — literally the secrets of the universe — were lost, then found, in a battered medieval prayer book. Saul Friedländer's new Holocaust classic, The Years of Extermination ($39.95), is not light holiday reading. Nor is The Tragic History of the Sea (National Geographic, $15.95), a shipwreck omnibus edited by Anthony Brandt. The past is less lethal in David Shenk's chess history The Immortal Game (Anchor, $14.95) and Henry Petroski's The Toothpick (Knopf, $27.95), which starts with a 3,500-year-old golden Mesopotamian one. A great artist's pinheaded Christ and "phallic doodles" are recorded in John Richardson's loving, lushly illustrated A Life of Picasso (Knopf, $40).

Eating

Cooking and dining are throwbacks in a Happy Meal era, which affords them a poignant natural affinity with books such as Clay Gordon's shopping and tasting manual Discover Chocolate (Gotham, $25), Adam D. Roberts' hilarious foodie how-to, The Amateur Gourmet (Bantam, $25), and Kate Colquhoun's history of British cuisine, Taste (Bloomsbury, $34.95): Queen Victoria adored bone marrow. Among the hundreds of recipes in their Veganomicon (Marlowe, $27.50), Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero proclaim rutabaga puree "a nice surprise." Pondering death and cheese and apocalypse, fifty renowned chefs envision their final meals on earth in My Last Supper (Bloomsbury, $39.95). Author Melanie Dunea recounts their recipes and imagined settings; Jamie Oliver would eat spaghetti while watching TV.

The End of History

It's the end of the world as we know it, maybe, and if anyone knows how impending obsolescence feels, it's book authors and publishers. They spell doom in a biblical flood of works such as Mike Davis' Planet of Slums (Verso, $16.95), Naomi Wolf's The End of America (Chelsea Green, $13.95), and Andrew Kimbrell's genetically-engineered-food exposé Your Right to Know (Earth Aware, $24.95): Shame on you, Chef Boyardee! The season's heftiest coffee-table book, weighing in at seven pounds, is packed with dazzling photographs of Americans enjoying ATVs, four-wheelers, jeeps, jet skis, snowmobiles, trucks, and motorcycles. But don't let Thrillcraft's fun title fool you. Edited by George Wuerthner (Chelsea Green, $60), it's an outraged outcry against "the environmental consequences of motorized recreation," packed with sad essays. Off-road vehicles kill pronghorns, you bastard.

Is this the last year we'll be alive to holiday shop? Or just the last year we'll buy books? Only Buffy the Vampire Slayer knows for sure.

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