If you're curious as to where all this evolution is leading (and don't subscribe to my mother-in-law's theory that it culminates in her grandchildren), then you might want to look at THE EVOLVING SELF by University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It follows his 1991 bestseller, "Flow," which put forward the notion that happiness arises from immersion in difficult and challenging tasks. Serious readers know this from their own experiences; Csikszentmihalyi named the phenomenon "flow." In his new book he argues that the model of evolution, and understanding our evolutionary heritage, mixed with complex and multiple goals can lead to flow, and therefore the experience of happiness. If you give this book to a reader, even if she detests the thesis, she'll thoroughly enjoy working on pronouncing the author's name.
If evolutionists have been busy this last year, historians haven't been far behind. Most impressive, and comprehensive, is J.M. Roberts' HISTORY OF THE WORLD. In just under a thousand pages, he expands on his extraordinary earlier "Pelican History of the World." His narrative style, which gradually ties the disparate strands of human endeavor into the interconnected modern world, gives this history its distinctive voice--it would be great fun to have Dr. Roberts for dinner ("Well, Professor," I might try as an icebreaker, "How '\o7 bout \f7 that Fall of Constantinople?").
But if you're not in the mood for a historical smorgasbord, we can order from the menu: "Perhaps Madame might enjoy volume IV of THE HISTORY OF WOMEN: Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War edited by Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot? For starters, might we suggest a tureen of Peter Gay's CULTIVATION OF HATRED, the latest installment of his Bourgeoisie Experience series, and to complement this repast, for dessert, Alice Turner's sinfully delicious THE HISTORY OF HELL, garnished with color illustrations and topped with a generous dollop of bibliography. I'll give you a moment to decide, and don't forget that we have a child's menu too."
There are two "coffee table" histories which deserve special consideration. Margaret Oliphant's THE ATLAS OF THE ANCIENT WORLD is lavishly illustrated with neat graphics, keen color photographs, and "wow"-inducing maps. THE SMITHSONIAN TIMELINES OF THE ANCIENT WORLD by Christopher Scarre looks even better, but my son Colin keeps pinching my copy so he can look at it, which is about the greatest praise I can bestow on any book.
Lest I help propagate the myth that we of the readership persuasion are interested only in what goes on between the covers of books, allow me a few recommendations. EROTIC LITERATURE: 24 Centuries of Sensual Writing edited by Jane Mills is 376 hot sheets which include all forms of sexual behavior as it's appeared in world literature, from Sumerian Wedding verse to assure fertility, to Nicholson Baker's phone sex in "Vox" (to assure safety). There are some pretty steamy stops along the way. If that suggestion lacks subtlety, THE METAMORPHOSES OF OVID: A New Verse Translation by Allen Mandelbaum is truly a beautiful book: cover, binding, printing, paper and production values. Those Olympians sure knew how to have a good time.
Still, these paltry few books represent only the slimmest sampling of holiday fare. Fiction (Atwood, Nordan, Mukherjee), biographies (Harold Laski, Vanessa Bell, Anais Nin, Bertrand Russell), general nonfiction (Wales, The North Pacific, the dietary habits of Jane Austen, sexual pessimism), reference books (defining word origins, telling pigs from hogs, explaining how aspirin finds headaches), even The Internet Directory (the Thomas Guide of the information highway, complete with Bitnet off-ramps) are just points on the reader's compass. This season there's more than enough to fog the glasses of any high brow. Have we had enough? Never!
BOOKS DISCUSSED, HINTED AT AND RECOMMENDED: