What makes a coffee table book? Is it the big pictures? The hardback cover? Or an unusual subject matter? The best coffee table book can be all of these things – and none of them. Most of all, it should be engaging. That’s because a coffee table book is one you enjoy in your downtime, in a very different manner to any comparable volume.
Coffee table books aren’t like works of fiction that you’d consume within a fortnight: rather, you graze them as you sip. And they’re not like reference works that you plough through as quickly as possible for your job or your education. You might never read a coffee table book from cover to cover, and you might not read the pages in order. But you’ll almost certainly pick it up again and again, sometimes over many years, and it’s often something you’ll leave on display in the hope it inspires conversation.
Here, we’ve pulled together a selection of coffee table books published over the last couple of years. In some, the subject matter is pressing, like the images of the pandemic that you’ll find in Hold Still. Sometimes the subject is practical, like the hedgerow food guide you’ll find in Forage. And sometimes it’s quirky and engaging, like the clever infographics of Visualising the Beatles.
These books are diverse, and although there is some crossover – as between Hold Still and Cold War Steve, or between Forage and A Year Unfolding – they each have something unique to say, and a distinctive way of saying it.
The usual online stores are a good starting point, but to really appreciate the heft and beauty of the more expensive options, it’s difficult to beat the in-person experience. Most high street and specialist bookstores have a good selection of likely volumes, filed in the relevant subject areas rather than in a specific “coffee table books” section (the exception being eye-catching new releases, which may be arranged on tables close to the entrance). Also check out local museums and art galleries, which often have a good selection in their gift shops.
“How much do you want to spend?” would be a more pertinent question. The books we’ve selected below start at £8 and run to £31, but we could easily have splurged. Taschen’s limited edition (10,000 copies) homage to the photographer Helmut Newton, which came with its own Philippe Starck-designed bookstand, cost £20,000. And even at this price, it sold out.
If you’re shopping on a budget, don’t forget to check out specialist second-hand bookshops, both online and on the high street, where knowledgeable staff can advise and, if you’re looking for something that’s hard to source, will sometimes keep a note of your requirements should anything relevant come in.
Don’t spill coffee on them, for starters. Ideally, store them flat and, if you have no choice but to stand them on end, turn them over from time to time so the weight of the pages doesn’t warp the binding. If you retire them from the coffee table to a shelf, consider storing them spine-side-in so the sun doesn’t fade the cover art.
At the same time, though, remember that while books can be things of beauty, they are made to be read and enjoyed. If you’re too afraid of spilling things on them or creasing the pages, and rarely pick them up – you’re missing the point. The odd fingerprint here and there shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment.
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Price: £18 (hardcover) | Buy now from Amazon
Some books suck you in, even if you’re not hugely interested in the subject. It all comes down to a brilliant idea and skilful presentation. Whether you’re a Beatles aficionado, or know nothing more than “Yesterday” and “Yellow Submarine”, you could spend hours leafing through this beautifully presented, fascinating fact book, which casts the fab four in a wholly new and entirely statistical light.
The presentation, as you’d expect from a book of infographics, is sharp, flat and unfussy. It crams in a wealth of information but it’s so easy to dip into and out of that it never leaves you feeling overwhelmed. Indeed, there’s always the temptation to turn just one more page, as you never quite know what you’ll find. It might be a timeline of real-world events that coincided with each album being recorded, a word cloud of an album’s most often-repeated lyrics, how much each member contributed to the writing, or a map of important locations in Liverpool.
If you want to know which key each song was recorded in (and whether it was major or minor), how loud and intense each track is, or to follow the band’s outfits as they evolved throughout their career, this is where you’ll find it. And for graphic designers, there’s plenty of inspiration to be found – even if The Beatles isn’t your thing.
Authors: John Pring and Rob Thomas; Publisher: Orphans Publishing; Published: 2021; Length: 256 pages; Size: 25 x 21cm; ISBN: 978-1903360484
Price: £20 | Buy now from Amazon
What does an iconic Hovis ad (boy, bike, steep hill) have in common with Blade Runner’s replicants? And what links the dystopian ad that launched the Apple Macintosh with a crowdsourced documentary celebrating the diversity of British life in the run-up to the London Olympics? Answer: each was masterminded by Ridley Scott, the visionary producer and director who brought us Blade Runner, Gladiator, Alien and Thelma & Louise.
There’s heaps to explore and enjoy here, whether you’re after big, glossy photos or insightful text from the former editor of film mag Empire (he’s also the author of a retrospective on Alien, one of Scott’s best-known films).
It doesn’t matter if you’re a student of cinematography, a fan of Scott’s work or just a film buff: there’s much to discover here, with insight into the themes that run through his output, and interviews with the man himself. Scott is one of Britain’s most accomplished directors, and this volume feels like a fitting tribute.
Authors: Ian Nathan; Publisher: Thames and Hudson; Published: 2020; Length: 240 pages; Size: 24 x 30cm; ISBN: 978-0500023822
Price: £14 | Buy now from Amazon
If replicants and aliens leave you breathless, come back down to earth with Angela Harding’s beautiful A Year Unfolding. The cover alone gives you a good idea of what you’ll find inside: a seasonal almanac of British flora and fauna, how it looks, how it behaves and what changes over the course of 12 months.
Harding is a linocut and silkscreen printmaker, who works from a studio at the end of her garden in Wing, a village in the county of Rutland. Much of the book was put together while Britain was in lockdown: a time, she writes, when “we have valued nature from our own homes in a new way. Many of us have been able to enjoy its sounds, its smells and its beauty – whether that is in a small garden, a wilderness, a park or watching an indoor plant flourish over the course of time.”
Lockdown forced many of us onto the slow track, and it does us no harm, as we resume a more hectic pace of life, to be reminded of the value in doing things slowly – and in doing them the traditional way. Linocut and vinyl cutting may no longer be the essential skills they once were, when books can now more easily, more quickly and more cheaply be illustrated using full colour photography, but the forms have a charm of their own. The limited colour palette and the intricate details of Harding’s hand carvings bring something all of their own: a quietness and an appreciation for the other-worldliness of nature that’s easily missed when viewed through a lens.
Authors: Angela Harding; Publisher: Sphere; Published: 2021; Length: 192 pages; Size: 20 x 25cm; ISBN: 978-0751584332
Price: £14 | Buy now from Amazon
Richard Mabey’s Food for Free, first published in 1972 and still in print, has long been the forager’s go-to, despite an increasing number of rivals appearing on British bookshelves. Forage: Wild Plants to Gather, Cook and Eat is one of the latest additions to the canon. Beautifully illustrated by Rachel Pedder-Smith, this survey of edible hedgerows in Britain and beyond is a feast for the eyes, even if it never inspires you to head out into nature for a spot of guerrilla harvesting.
Revealing where you’ll find 50 of our forgotten foodstuffs, how to spot them and where to pick them, it also features recipes, so you don’t arrive home with a basket of branches and no idea what to do with them (anyone for rose petal rice pudding?).
The best cookbooks are always inspiration points. They’re not necessarily filled with recipes you’ll ever actually follow, but are a rich collection of ideas, on the basis of which you can conjure up your own menu. Forage might well do more than that, inspiring long walks in a countryside that will at once seem more familiar, while reminding us that there’s some truth in the saying, “the best things in life are free” – at least where food is concerned.
Authors: Liz Knight; Publisher: Laurence King Publishing; Published: 2021; Length: 224 pages; Size: 18.4 x 2.4 x 24.2cm; ISBN: 978-1786277350
Price: £18 | Buy now from Amazon
2020 was a shock to the senses. We watched as coronavirus spread around the world, never fully appreciating what it meant until it was among us. And now, as we resume some kind of life-as-normal, it’s surprisingly easy for many to put it behind us, if not to forget it. Hold Still, described as “a unique collective portrait of the United Kingdom during the national lockdown”, is thus a vital record of an extraordinary 12 months that extended beyond 2020 and well into 2021.
Compiled by the National Portrait Gallery, with an introduction by the Duchess of Cambridge, it presents 100 portraits, taken by the general public in May and June 2020, which highlight the extraordinary work of helpers – whether professionals or volunteers – random acts of kindness, and the way we lived during the early months of the pandemic.
Today, Hold Still is an insight into what Covid was like for the people many of us didn’t encounter, including the dementia nurses who couldn’t work from home, and the grandparents who could only meet their grandchildren through glass. But the value of this pictorial record may only be fully realised over time, when we’ve forgotten the headlines and need to be reminded of the way we lived, the way we coped and the way so many stepped up when called upon to help.
Authors: Lemn Sissay; Publisher: National Portrait Gallery; Published: 2021; Length: 168 pages; Size: 29 x 22cm; ISBN: 978-1855147386
Price: £8 | Buy now from Amazon
Where Hold Still shows Britain at its best, Cold War Steve’s depictions of the “Plague Year” show something else entirely. Otherwise known as Christopher Spencer, Cold War Steve will already be familiar to followers on Instagram and Twitter, to whom he serves a diet of surreal montages poking fun at the political class, while simultaneously highlighting the absurdities to which we’re rapidly becoming immune. His work has been exhibited at the National Galleries of Scotland, at Glastonbury and on the cover of TIME magazine. He’s been the subject of a Sky Arts documentary, and was shortlisted for the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award.
In Journal of the Plague Year, he winds back the clock to 2020 with collages depicting not only the British government’s handling of the pandemic, but the drama of the US election, the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat and other stories that made the headlines.
Each image may be a satire in its own right, but a book like this also makes some serious political statements and leaves us asking whether we could – and should – expect more of those we elect to represent us in the realms of politics and the media, in this country and beyond.
Authors: Cold War Steve; Publisher: Thames and Hudson; Published: 2021; Length: 128 pages; Size: 20 x 22cm; ISBN: 978-0500025154
Price: £21 | Buy now from Amazon
London is full of big buildings and familiar sights: St Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. There’s a good reason they’re on every tourist’s checklist, but few Londoners would argue that seeing them from the top of a bus gives an accurate view of the capital. To truly understand a city – any city, not just London – you need to find the unfamiliar, the under-reported and the unique.
London Explored does just that. Dividing the city into six areas, it not only reveals the unseen parts of the most familiar attractions, but draws attention to the often overlooked. Dr John Snow’s handle-less water pump, on Broadwick Street, is a case in point. The doctor proved that the pump was a point of mass infection in a deadly cholera outbreak and, in doing so, made medical history. Few Londoners, and even fewer tourists, would be likely to undertake the five-minute walk from the nearest tube stop to visit – but with a book like this, they no longer need to.
It doesn’t sidestep the obvious: Admiralty Arch, St Paul’s and the Natural History Museum each get a mention, among other well-known names, but Dazeley and Daly take us beyond the capital’s postcard views to present something that even lifelong Londoners will find curious and interesting.
Authors: Peter Dazeley and Mark Daly; Publisher: Frances Lincoln; Published: 2021; Length: 272 pages; Size: 25 x 31cm; ISBN: 978-0711240353
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