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Winter 2008 Roundup: Coffee-Table Books

David Schoonmaker, Catherine Clabby, Fenella Saunders, Morgan Ryan, Anna Lena Phillips, Flora Taylor

This selection of coffee-table books includes some of our recent favorites, with subjects including geology, cartography, the art of the formula, and animal architecture. Although most of these books are large-format, a couple pack all the visual intensity of a traditional coffee-table book into a more compact design. Reviews begin on the next page. Enjoy!

Over the Rivers: An Aerial View of Geology, by Michael Collier
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Roughly speaking, the difference between sedimentologists and geomorphologists comes down to their angle on the geological world. Sediments are, at least by origin, horizontal and always require that perspective. Geomorphologists prefer the vertical: What shaped a particular topography? In this, geologist and family physician Michael Collier is the quintessential geomorphologist. He peers down on the landscape with a Pentax from his Cessna 180 recording the way rivers and the land they cross interact. But he’s more than that.

After my first browse of Collier’s book, Over the Rivers (Mikaya Press, 2008, $34.95), neither earth scientist nor physician came to mind. Collier is a photographer of the highest caliber, someone who deeply understands the photographer’s paintbrush, what he himself calls “Rembrandt light.” Each of the book’s 73 aerial images of rivers at work is captivating, and the accompanying text helps the viewer decipher the landscape.

The photographs are restricted to North America and concentrate in the desert Southwest, where the Earth readily reveals in skeleton. But nothing is lost by the focus. It’s impossible to come away from this book without a deeper appreciation of our home and the processes that shape it.—David Schoonmaker

The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the Way We Live, by Daniel Dorling, Mark Newman and Anna Barford
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If ever there was a time when we needed to understand the world on a global scale, it is now. Opportunities and troubles beyond any one country’s borders are closer than ever before. Swelling human populations, ease of international travel and the Internet’s distance-shrinking powers guarantee that this will continue to be the case. So do environmental threats on a scale never before encountered.

The Atlas of the Real World (Thames & Hudson, 2008, $50) is a pictorial primer on the similarities and differences between the world’s regions. Rather than merely telling, it shows what distinguishes a given place in scores of categories: wealth, natural resources, exports, health, scientific research, book authorship and more. The authors—British- and U.S.-based researchers Daniel Dorling, Mark Newman and Anna Barford—have produced an abundance of cartograms: colorful maps that represent data by varying the sizes of their elements—in this case, world regions, including Central America, Southeast Asia, Central Africa and Europe. (Many samples of their approach can be viewed at no cost at .)

It’s no surprise that when it comes to the export of toys, East Asia (which includes factory-rich China) balloons up to dominate much of the planet—or that in an adjacent panel, North America and Europe swell as large toy importers. The shapes of continents morph again when the topic is nuclear arsenals—the United States, Russia and Israel dwarf everyone else. In the cartogram showing the availability of sewerage systems, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg all come out on top. And another map reveals the huge proportion of the world’s prisoners jailed in the U.S.

Many categories of serious concern are covered here. But in a truly comprehensive “atlas,” more positive aspects of life in so-called developing countries would surely also be displayed: self-reliance skills, say, or artistic engagement or strength of family ties. Still, this book will improve your view of a planet that feels as though it grows smaller every day.—Catherine Clabby

Formulas for Now, edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist
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Formulas have an elegant simplicity. It’s true that they can seem like impenetrable jumbles of symbols to the uninitiated if no legend is provided. But one doesn’t have to be a mathematician to appreciate just how much information and meaning a formula can pack into a small space. Wouldn’t it be nice if shorthand expressions with similar elegance and depth were available for other pursuits?

Hans Ulrich Obrist didn’t see why not. Inspired by some “brilliant examples of theory-into-form” (Roger Penrose’s illustrations for The Road to Reality), he asked quite a few scientists, mathematicians, artists, writers and architects to send him “an equation for the twenty-first century.” That’s it, no other instruction. Formulas for Now (Thames and Hudson, 2008, $24.95) is a compilation of the eclectic responses he received.

Some respondents took the task literally: “Power of a theory = number of things it explains divided by number of things it needs to assume.” Some offered a recipe: Mix “1 tablespoon of talent, 5 drops of popularity, 1 drop of luck, 10 kilograms of discipline, 6 glasses of self-sacrifice, 3 grams of spirituality.” Others refused to address the question directly at all: “It’s more about possibilities, not solutions.”

Some of the contributions provide real information and food for thought—the essence of a successful formula. Musician Brian Eno provides a flow chart showing how the Sahel region of Africa was turned into a desert by good intentions. Artist Ryan Gander shares a proposal for a Tiffany necklace engraved with a formula (shown) which translates to “There exists only one definition for everything, everywhere at any one time.” Architect Nikolaus Hirsch provides a graph of the ranges of sensitivity of people and objects to temperature and humidity, showing that “there is no reliable relationship between human comfort and the suitable environment for an art work.” Artist Anri Sala shows how “the cricket formula,” which calculates the temperature by counting the number of cricket chirps per minute, has been modified by Gregory Chaitin to reveal how many extra cricket chirps there will be for every degree of increase in temperature due to climate change from global warming.

Formulas for Now is cleverly designed. The table of contents mimics the periodic table of elements, grouping and color-coding the authors’ initials by occupation. The picture credits page is handwritten on graph paper that has notes scrawled all over it. And the heavily bound book even provides a formula for itself: You can calculate its weight based on a formula provided on the copyright page.—Fenella Saunders

Inside the Body: Fantastic Images from Beneath the Skin, by the Science Photo Library, edited by Victoria Alers-Hankey and Joanna Chisholm
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For the task of deciphering what’s going on inside our bodies, the naked eye is sadly inadequate—unable to detect signals from most of the electromagnetic spectrum or to resolve life at the operational level of cells, ducts and integument. Medical laboratories are filled with technologies engineered to compensate for our sensory limitations: light micrographs, electron microscopes, x-rays, angiograms, magnetic resonance imaging, thermograms, ultrasound, endoscopes, gamma camera scans, resin casts and the like. Inside the Body (Firefly Books, 2007, $29.95 paper) takes those techniques on a spree, looking at the astonishing geography of our interiors: the skull beneath the skin, the gizzard, the glottis, the flyway of overlapping nerve fibers.

The scale ranges from an implausibly detailed resin cast of the capillaries in a kidney, to the reef-like cavities in spongy bone, to the jungle rot within a retinal cell that is destroying itself by programmed cell death.

There are showstoppers in abundance. Above, a scanning electron microscope image reveals the sensory hair cells that line the cochlea in the inner ear, arrayed in banks like the pipes of a church organ.—Morgan Ryan

Architecture by Birds and Insects: A Natural Art, by Peggy Macnamara
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People have long looked to animals’ nests for architectural inspiration. For Architecture by Birds and Insects (University of Chicago Press, 2008, $25), Peggy Macnamara, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and artist-in-residence of the Field Museum’s zoology program, has put together a delightful collection of paintings that invites further exploration of the techniques and materials that birds and insects use to make their homes.

The nests are arranged not by the kind of organism that makes them, but by how they are made. Thus the section called “Nests Made by Carving Wood” includes the constructions of both woodpeckers and carpenter ants; “Nests Made by Sewing, Weaving, and Binding” has caddisfly larvae, an ant garden, and the homes of swifts, wrens, and a bald eagle, among others. Every plate is accompanied by a numbered key and captions that describe each element of the image.

Most of the nests pictured are from the collections of the Field Museum in Chicago, and most were found in North or South America. Apart from the sheer pleasure of poring over these images, the book also affords a sense of the ways that scientists and artists can engage with museum collections. Macnamara’s decisions about how to arrange and interpret the specimens give them new life.

It’s clear that every aspect of Architecture by Birds and Insects, from typography to binding, has been given careful attention. The book is compact, just 6 1/4 by 9 1/4 inches, but the horizontal design leaves plenty of room for Macnamara’s paintings to shine. Some of the images show the nests and their architects in situ, such as the plate that depicts European storks nesting on a rooftop. Others display many kinds of nests together for comparison. A collection of mud nests and their builders arrayed on the page—the greater flamingo, the cliff swallow, the ovenbird and the potter wasp—hearkens back to the wonder cabinets of the Renaissance (above). Within the pages of this small book, readers will find enough to fascinate them for at least the span of a winter afternoon.—Anna Lena Phillips

Extraordinary Leaves, photographs by Stephen Green-Armytage, text by Dennis Schrader
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These striking photos of foliage are grouped mostly according to prominent features of the leaves: color (who would have expected that black leaf cotton [Gossypium herbaceum “nigra”] would be the standout in this section?), pattern (check out the “Boston cherries ‘n chocolate” begonia, Begonia rex), edges (think thistles), texture (lustrous, puckered, or hairy—like the stunning silvery clary sage, Salvia argentia), shape (I like the fishtail palm, Caryota mitis), size (the night-blooming giant waterlily Victoria amazonica can grow to an amazing 2.7 meters in diameter) and climbing patterns (the creeping fig, Ficus pumila, is especially lovely). But caladiums get their own chapter, as do kale, ferns, coleus (the “tilt-a-whirl” variety is shown here) and vines.

From the text of Extraordinary Leaves (Firefly, 2008, $45), one chiefly learns such odds and ends as that cotton is a close relation to hibiscus, coleus is in the mint family, and Thailand is the new hotspot for caladium breeding. But there is also this startling (to me) recipe for growing moss: Put some fresh moss in a blender with buttermilk, beer or yogurt, add potter’s clay, and puree. Then spread the mixture where you want moss to grow and keep shaded and well misted.—Flora Taylor

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