Saturday, January 29, 2011

Great Coffee Table Books

Writing about The Past from Above put me in mind of other great coffee table books I have known, books that can be enjoyed as collections of pictures and short quotations but that also contain much real data about the past. I think picture books are a great format for presenting history, because I like to have visuals for the past. I like to see people's houses and cities and works of art. Pictures are especially important for any society that we know largely through archaeology, because things like town plans and tomb layouts can be appreciated much better through illustrations. So here is a sample of my favorite coffee table history books:

James Campbell, The Anglo-Saxons. This is the high academic end of the genre, a learned book making sophisticated arguments that depend a great deal on on the art objects and archaeological diagrams presented. I think it is the best available introductory book on Anglo-Saxon England, and it is wonderfully illustrated.

Simon James, The World of the Celts. (2005) This is a medium-format book that I just discovered at my public library. It has many, many illustrations of archaeological discoveries and sites, including some that I had never seen before. The text is excellent and highly readable.

Malcolm Jones, The Secret Middle Ages: Discovering the Real Medieval World. (2002) This delightful book presents a social history of later Medieval Europe from objects like muffin tins and pilgrims' badges. Perhaps it has too high a ratio of text to pictures to belong on this list, but much of the text is about things like dirty jokes and underwear.

Elizabeth Hallam, Editor. Four Gothic Kings: The Turbulent History of Medieval England and the Plantagenet Kings (1216-1377) Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III. When I want to check some detail of English history or life in this period, say for my novel, this is the book I turn to first. The text includes numerous page-length quotations from original sources and there are tons of pictures of lovely Gothic art.

Marisa Ranieri Panetta, Editor. Pompeii: the History, Life, and Art of the Buried City. Blow-me-away beautiful pictures, with very informative little text blocks about everything from religion to mixing paint.

Richard F. Townsend, Editor. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. (2004) This is the catalog from an exhibition of ancient American Indian Art, focusing mainly on the Mississippians. The pictures are fabulous and the numerous essays are an excellent introduction of Mississippian civilization.

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