The very, very good: Surely the book gift that will generate the maximum "wow" effect from the widest range of recipients, Gary Larson's The Complete Far Side (Andrews McMeel, $135) weighs as much as a snake that just swallowed a pot-bellied pig. Fortunately, it smells better, and its thick, glossy pages won't mess your carpet. Every weird cartoon is assembled in chronological order, in full color where appropriate, and interspersed with cool additional tidbits like occasional memoirs. The monster hiding under the bed has never been funnier.
The comics fan: Less pricy than the Larson, but equally monumental to comics history is Palomar (Fantagraphics, $39.95), which collects every one of the Heartbreak Soup stories by Love & Rockets cartoonist Gilbert Hernandez in a handsome hardback. One of the most convincing arguments ever for the literary value of comic books, Palomar is like Peanuts meets Gabriel García Márquez. Less epic in its creation but highly ambitious, Chester Brown's Louis Riel (Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95) is a slice of Canadian history from one of the medium's most brilliant memoirists. Those still enamored of superheroes will go ape for Liberty and Justice (DC, $9.95), the latest from sensation Alex Roth (the artist whose painted crusaders look real enough to exist), and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 2 (DC, $24.95), a much-needed antidote to this summer's atrocious film.
The art/design lover: Taschen's Art Now ($39.99) is a godsend for would-be hipsters: an encyclopedia of just-emerging art stars, with bios, well-reproduced images, CVs, and quotes. It even lists their dealers and the current price range of their work. Graphic designers will dig Surprise Me (Mark Batty, $75), an imaginative survey of recent magazine design that draws from countless obscure glossies.
The budding ethnologist: For photographers and historians alike, Edward Curtis' The North American Indian (Taschen, $19.99) is a landmark collection of images; here, the mammoth collection fits, complete, in the palm of your hand. Exploring NYC instead of the Old West, L.B. Deyo & David Leibowitz' fascinating Invisible Frontier (Three Rivers, $14.95) chronicles illegal expeditions into abandoned subways and forbidden rooftops.
The shutterbug: Icons of the year: Phil Stern: A Life's Work (PowerHouse, $75) contains some of the most memorable celebrity photos ever printed in Life magazine, which is saying an awful lot. Aaron Siskind 100 (PowerHouse, $65) collects photo work so compositionally bold and anti-narrative it rivals the most gripping abstract painting.
The monolingual fan of world lit: Anthony Esolen's new translation of Dante's Inferno and Purgatory (Modern Library, $24.95 each) is in unrhymed blank verse, the better to follow the original's meanings, and includes Gustave Doré's famous illustrations. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are on a roll, Dostoevsky-wise; their highly acclaimed translations include The Idiot (Vintage, $12.95).
The cinephile: The British Film Institute produces some of the smartest film books going. The bite-sized BFI Modern Classics series ($12.95 each) obsesses on one movie at a time, from Shawshank Redemption to Lars Von Trier's The Idiots; here the L.A. Times' resident genius Manohla Dargis gets a whole 84 pages to spend on L.A. Confidential. BFI also goes longer-form, in scholarly tomes like The German Cinema Book ($24.95)
The future essayist: Writing guides are often dry, but The Pen Commandments (Pantheon, $19.95) is a smart, informal introductory text that treats writing like common sense, from basics like the parts of speech to very useful style tips. Even longtime keyboard jockeys can learn a thing or two from it, though it's best for those just starting out. For learning by example, two new collections jump out: Calvin Trillin's Feeding a Yen (Random House, $22.95) is food-specific, but the longtime New Yorker contributor shows how universal, and delightful, specific essays can be; Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste (Anchor, $15) collects the un-New Yorker-ish genius of music critic Lester Bangs. •