Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Sony Reader, Nude Tourists, Machiavelli, Football: Gift Books

By Edward Nawotka

Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) -- If you're anything like me, you still have a few people left on your holiday gift list. These suggestions should make last-minute shopping less stressful.

One of the most exciting book gifts of the year isn't a book at all: it's the Sony Reader, a device for reading digital books that resembles a slim, leather-bound paperback. It is the same size and weight as a small book, has a surprisingly bright and easy-to-read screen, and holds hundreds of books in its memory. At $350 it's not cheap, but it's the first digital reader that actually feels like a book.

Nick Hornby's ``Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt'' (McSweeney's, $14) is the second collection -- after 2004's ``The Polysyllabic Spree'' -- of the popular novelist's columns from the Believer magazine on the subject of his leisure reading. Each brief, humorous essay starts off with a list of ``Books Bought'' and ``Books Read,'' of which the former almost always exceeds the latter.

Lawrence Osborne's ``The Naked Tourist: In Search of Adventure and Beauty in the Age of the Airport Mall'' (North Point Press, $24) is perfect for the jetsetter afflicted with wanderlust. An acerbic, witty account of the author's journey from opulent Dubai through Asia to visit a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea, the book tries to answer the question: ``What does tourism, the world's single largest business, have to sell?''

Know someone actually looking forward to Windows Vista? Then ``The Best of Technology Writing 2006,'' edited by Brendan I. Koerner (DigitalCultureBooks, $17.95) is for them. The book offers two dozen entertaining articles about computers and digital culture culled from various geek bibles, including Wired magazine and Technology Review.

One contributor to that volume is Steven Johnson, whose latest book is the compulsively readable ``The Ghost Map'' (Riverhead, $26.95). Subtitled, ``The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World,'' the book makes the story of a cholera epidemic in 1854 and the English physician who sought to contain it a page- turning thriller, sprinkled with a heady dose of insight into the evolution of modern urban design and public health.

Another engrossing read comes from David Edmonds and John Eidinow, whose ``Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment'' (Ecco, $25.95) documents the feud between two of the 18th century's intellectual giants: the Scotsman David Hume, who believed in the apotheosis of reason, and Swiss-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who fought for the exaltation of emotion.

Eggheads also populate Ken Jennings's ``Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs'' (Villard, $25.95). Jennings is best known as the competitor who spent more than two years on ``Jeopardy!'' where he won more than $2.5 million. He proves to be an able writer, zestfully delving into the subculture of the information-obsessed and offering dozens of brain teasers along the way.

For physical rather than intellectual gamesmanship, try Mark St. Amant's ``Just Kick It: Tales of an Underdog, Over-Age, Out- of-Place Semi-Pro Football Player'' (Scribner, $23), in which St. Amant, a 37-year-old former advertising executive and fantasy- football fanatic, joins a real, semi-pro football team and experiences equal amounts of pleasure and pain by donning the pads and taking the hits.

In ``The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men's Style'' (Collins, $18.95), Nicholas Antongiavanni -- the nom-de-plume of political speechwriter Michael Anton -- uses ``The Prince'' as a blueprint for men to dress for success and get almost anything they want, from a promotion to a date.

A woman's handbag can say as much if not more about her than a man's suit, or so argues Winifred Gallagher in ``It's in the Bag: What Purses Reveal -- and Conceal'' (HarperCollins, $19.95). Her brief, delightful book covers the history of the handbag, the politics of the luxury-bag design business, and what the contents of a woman's handbag divulge about her inner life.

Finally, for those who insist the holidays have something to do with matters of the spirit, the excellent anthology ``This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women,'' edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman (Holt, $23), is especially appropriate for the season. Based on the National Public Radio series of the same name, ``This I Believe'' includes 80 personal essays from famous individuals, such as John McCain and Eleanor Roosevelt, and ordinary Americans, about their beliefs.

(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)