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Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY

Leave it to Martha

December 08, 1996|Martha Stewart | Martha Stewart is the author of 18 books on food and entertaining and the creator of the monthly magazine, "Martha Stewart Living," and a syndicated television show by the same name

Book Hampton is a small but excellent bookshop in the center of East Hampton, Long Island. On any given Saturday night, it is packed with book buyers like a supermarket full of shoppers on the eve of a major holiday. It is located just a few doors from the small, five-screen, first-run East Hampton Cinema. I and many of the people I know are in the habit of going to the 7 o'clock movie and then straight to the bookstore to browse, pick and buy. And now, with the major gift-giving season upon us, this shop and hundreds like it across America are filled to the brim with a good sampling of the 50,000 or so books published in America every year.

Book Hampton has approximately 1,000 titles on the decorative arts for the holiday season. Book superstores pose an even larger problem to the customer because their stock is many times that of smaller independents like this one. I and millions like me are in awe upon entering bookstores--not to mention confused and wowed. The primary goal is how to systematically sift through the orderly piles and stacks and shelves and make intelligent choices--books for oneself and for others, books of quality, beauty, lasting usefulness, interest and value. There are so many, many books, and many may arouse interest for a few minutes or so but, once put down, quickly get forgotten. Faced with these choices, how indeed does one choose?

I have set up an informal and very personal "how to choose a book" criteria list that I would like to share with all of you. These criteria apply to books for oneself as well as for others. The following list pertains to books about the decorative arts field that I read for this article plus some others that illustrate well the points in question:

1. Is the subject desirable to the intended recipient and is it treated in either an entertaining or informative fashion? Certainly for someone who is interested in gardening and gardening history, Alan Emmet's So Fine a Prospect: Historic New England Gardens is an excellent choice. Every chapter in this beautifully researched book is a saga about a gardener, a garden and the family ties to that garden.

2. Is the author or editor an authority, a talented writer or an expert? A beautiful volume, William Morris, edited by Linda Parry, is a fantastically illustrated, comprehensive volume about a historically important figure who pioneered the British arts and crafts movement. This book fulfills many of the criteria on this list.

3. Will the book be of lasting usefulness as a reference work, a visual stimulation and a source of pleasure? The Bulfinch Anatomy of Antique Furniture: An Illustrated Guide to Identifying Period, Detail and Design is an excellent example of a valuable and long-lasting reference work. Tables, chairs, settees and chests are dissected and explained in a clearly illustrated, straightforward demystification of a subject that is baffling and confusing even to the experienced collector. Books of this kind are invaluable reference works for the novice as well as seasoned collector. The Period House: Style, Detail & Decoration 1774 to 1914 by Richard Russell Lawrence and Teresa Chris is a less complex book, but it too fulfills its task as a reference that will be consulted again and again.

4. Can the book sustain multiple readings? There were many books included in this section that did not fulfill this basic criterion. Three recent books on bathrooms warranted only a brief flipping-through--certainly not enough of a reason to buy or give. Elaborate, lavish illustration also does not make a book worthwhile if the text is cursory or the information, skimpy and inaccurate. Several recent books on table settings and entertaining ideas appear quite inadequate, with illustrative photographs taken from odd angles, pictures out of focus and lightweight, unhelpful text and illustrations.

5. Is the photography or illustration of the highest quality? Minimum, by John Pawson, uses some of the finest examples of art, architecture and the decorative arts to illustrate beautifully and evocatively a short, but well-honed, text explaining the author's specific philosophy. The book, superbly designed and printed on the finest paper, fills the next requirement nicely and in a fashion befitting its subject matter.

6. Is the book well constructed? Is the paper good, the reproduction clear, the design wholesome and the binding excellent? Beauty is not enough when it comes to most books, but photography monographs, art books and artists' monographs must be beautiful to be granted space on my library shelves. Bookmaking as an art is still alive, and it is a pleasure to open a well-made book.

7. Are the book, the subject and the treatment unique? It is very difficult to find books that fit these criteria and, in my pile of review copies, there was not one book that stood out.

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