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GIFTS THAT GO PLACES : Books : The season's most readable armchair journeys

November 25, 1990|GRAHAME L. JONES | Jones is a free-lance newspaper and magazine writer based in Los Angeles

In 1935, Evelyn Waugh was sent to Abyssinia by England's Daily Mail to serve as a war correspondent. The book that emerged from that trip, "Waugh in Abyssinia," has long since been out of print.

Waugh's wish that it never be reprinted (apart from the excerpt he chose to use in "When the Going Was Good") means that the book is virtually impossible to find.

Earlier this year, I found a copy at an antiquarian book fair. It was a first edition, in good condition, with the dust jacket intact. The pleasure I felt was immediately tempered, however, by the book's price. What had sold originally for perhaps a dollar or two now cost a staggering $600.

I resisted the temptation to buy it. This, I thought, is a book I'd like to receive as a gift. Wishful thinking, to be sure.

All of which serves to introduce the subject of travel books as presents. Perhaps no other gift can bring as much pleasure to the traveler, whether armchair or actual, as a well-written or well-illustrated travel book.

Basically, there are three types: travel guides, which make up the vast bulk of the genre and which vary widely in type and quality; the so-called photo essay or coffeetable picture books, where the quality range is even greater, and travel narratives, the best of which survive to become travel literature.

To better illustrate the difference, here is an example of each kind, any one of which would make an admirable gift:

Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence" (Knopf, $19.95) is travel literature of the highest order. It is a book destined to be read and reread for decades to come. The very essence of French rural life seeps through its pages. "A Year in Provence," in fact, goes by all too quickly. After reading it, I can only hope that Mayle will allow us to spend another 12 months in his village and in the company of the odd assortment of characters he introduces.

Then there is Loren McIntyre's "Exploring South America" (Potter, $40), a volume of an entirely different sort. In a year that has seen the publication of several top-notch photo essay books, this one stands out. The photography is nothing short of breathtaking, providing a stunning look at a continent sadly unknown to all too many Americans.

Thirdly, a new type of guidebook, very likely the first in a series, is Patty Lurie's "A Guide to the Impressionist Landscapes" (Little, Brown, $16.95). This is a soft-cover book of day-trips from Paris to the sites where the great Impressionist paintings were created.

In other words, if you want to see where Monet painted "The Bridge at Argenteuil," for instance, Lurie's guide will show you the painting, show you what's there now and tell you in detail how to visit the spot. The book provides maps and directions, and includes costs and the time needed. It even tells you where the original painting hangs, in this case, the National Gallery in Washington D.C. A simple idea marvelously executed.

But while guides such as this are pointers to where travelers intend to go, travel literature and the photo essay books are more indicative of where people dream of going. As a result, they, rather than guidebooks, are more popular as presents.

What follows is a selection of books that this year is sending travelers out on journeys of fact or fantasy; books that would make the ideal gift for those with wanderlust in their soul. Some are personal suggestions, others have been recommended by bookstore owners and a few are included based on the reviews given by other writers. First, the best of the coffeetable travel books.

Antarctica, certainly, is a place most people never will visit, and yet "Wild Ice" (Smithsonian Institution Press, $29.95) is among a number of top-selling books on that bleak and forbidding continent.

Co-authored by Ron Naveen, Colin Monteath, Tui De Roy and Mark Jones, "Wild Ice" is every bit the photographic equal of "Exploring South America." But whereas in the latter book the reader can almost feel the heat and humidity rising from the Amazon jungle, here he or she is numbed by the icy grandeur of Antarctica. "Wild Ice" is an unforgettably beautiful book.

An equally remote but no less intriguing destination is the subject of "The Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan" by Shiro Shirahata (Cloud Cap Press, $75). Said Michael Chessler of Chessler Books, a mountain and adventure specialist in Colorado: "It's primarily photos, very little text, just captions. It's magnificent. By far the best book ever done on the Karakoram, which is where K-2, the second-highest mountain in the world is."

Another mountain book to peak the interest is Edwin Bernbaum's "Sacred Mountains of the World" (Sierra Club Books, $50). "I'd recommend it," Chessler said. "It's a beautifully done book, and people are drawn to mountains."

Dreamers also are drawn to remote islands, and while it may not feature white-sand beaches and swaying palm trees, "Iceland" by David Roberts and Jon Krakauer (Abrams, $39.95) fully conveys the flavor of "the land of sagas."

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