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Last Minute Literary Gift Suggestions

Art books and biographies top the list of suggestions.

I have one more chance to offer gift suggestions before the Big Day (or Big Days if your celebration is of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa) to find a flattering, welcome book gift.

Once again, I have a splendid art book (and no, I do not have an under-the-table deal with Yale University Press to whoop up their art books — it’s just that I like them so much!), which I have to say is really more for Christmas than the holiday occasions. It is called The Art of Illumination and is subtitled The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duke of Berry. 

Duke John of Valois, also known as John the Magnificent (1340-1416), was the son of one King of France (John II “The Good”), brother of another (Charles V), and uncle of a third (Charles VI). Duke John was very rich, reasonably pious, generous, a frequent worker for peace, a passionate book-a-holic and a man of flawless artistic taste and patron of the arts. In 1405, he hired the three Limbourg Brothers of Nijmigen, Holland, the greatest miniature painters of their day, to prepare for him another  hand-painted ‘book of hours.’  This was a rich layman’s version of a monk’s or priest’s breviary, containing the text of prayers such as Lauds (morning prayer), Vespers (evening prayer) and Compline (night prayer) to be said throughout the day. The result is known to history as the Royal Duke’s Belles Heures or ‘beautiful prayer-book.’ And so it is.

The Belles Heures contains 224 ‘folios’ or leaves of vellum, made of the best calf-skin, each 11-1/2 by 8-1/4 inches. The prayers are written in a fine Gothic script or textura formata and consist of shorter forms of the monastic hours for private devotional use plus selected saints’ observances, primarily of course the Virgin Mary. The artistic merit of the Belles Heures of course is not in the selection of psalms and prayers (except perhaps for those addicted to praying in Latin set out in elegant calligraphy) but in the magnificent small paintings of scenes from the Bible of the life of Christ and his mother, and also from the lives of saints especially popular in Mediaeval France such as Catherine of Alexandria who gets an especially charming series. This is the sort of splendid art book that the recipient will proudly advertise on the coffee table and also enjoy through looking at the handsomely reproduced paintings from this masterpiece.

For those on your list who might not want another beautiful art book, the past year or so has produced some fine biographies, and I propose two for your consideration. A few millennia ago, the author Sirach wrote, in the book of the Catholic Old Testament called Ecclesiasticus (it’s not in a Protestant Bible — they call it ‘apocryphal’): “Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us” (44:1).

My first praiseworthy man’s biography is Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris, which rounds out his three-part life of the youngest of the four great presidents on Mt. Rushmore (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and TR). As Morris says, “Of all our great presidents, Theodore Roosevelt is the only one whose greatness increased out of office.”

If you enjoyed the two prior volumes The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt on his earlier adventures and career and Theodore Rex on his presidency, I need say no more. If you aren’t familiar with him, my favorite American political philosopher, the late Sage of Baltimore H. L. Mencken, wrote back in 1931 that TR “was, by long odds, the most interesting man who ever infested the White House, not excepting Jefferson and Jackson. Life fascinated him … He was highly intelligent and for a politician very widely read.” Such a man could hardly have shuffled off to a rocking chair or entertained himself as an environmental scold. He took his son Kermit on a long and difficult safari to Africa (and wrote a splendid book about it), explored some very rough country in South America, chivied his successor Taft, and in general remained what he had always been: a peculiarly American form of very great, and very interesting, man indeed.

An odder sort of hero is the subject of another very well written biography called, appropriately, just Hero and subtitled The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda. Lawrence was born “on the wrong side of the blanket,” as my mother used to say, in 1888, the son of an Irish squire who ran off with his children’s governess. He dazzled his teachers at Oxford. His thesis became the book Crusader Castles; he translated Homer’s Odyssey from the Greek; and did serious professional work as an archaeologist in the Middle East. Come World War I with the Ottoman Empire as a new enemy, he was picked up as an Arabic-speaking intelligence officer at Cairo.

From Cairo, he went into action as the brilliant tactician of guerilla warfare and eloquent advocate for Arab causes who, with more than a little help from American publicity genius Lowell Thomas, became the famous Lawrence of Arabia. It is sad, but many biographies of Lawrence have tended to wrong extremes: either worshipping hagiography, or attempts to tear him down. I’ve read a good bit about this deeply interesting man, and in my view no one to date has come close to Korda in giving a comprehensive and balanced portrait of a hero who was all at once a brilliant scholar, ruthless and amazingly effective warrior, linguist, and –to be fair- rather strange character. 

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