The gift books come in all shapes and sizes this year: big, little, tiny, huge, long, short, fat and thin, rather like their writers, I would guess. Biggest and fattest of them all is The Art of Aardman (Simon & Schuster, £16.99). This is a coffee-table book, pure and simple, that celebrates 40 years of animation at Aardman Studios, who make Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and others, and I would suggest that you have known since the beginning of this sentence whether or not you want this book for Christmas. It’s everything you would wish for from such a volume, featuring stills from the films, drawings from the animators’ sketchbooks, portraits of sets, technical drawings for props, manifold character studies and very, very few words indeed. It’s a book to get lost in on Boxing Day, or any day before or after.
Slightly smaller is Jane Bown’s Cats (Guardian/Faber, £14.99). Bown was a photographer who joined the Observer in 1949, worked almost exclusively in black and white with natural light, and died a couple of years ago. This is, again very simply, a book full of photos of cats. ‘Why would anyone need this?’ said my partner, before spending the entire afternoon leafing through it. They are not obvious photographs of cats, but oddly enough each one seems to tell a story, and because the photos were mainly taken between the 1950s and the 1980s, there’s the slightly sombre knowledge that all of these cats are long dead. It’s probably best consumed with a cat on your lap, or at the very least, one purring around your legs asking for the food you’ve forgotten to give it.
One constantly thriving sub-genre of the gift book category is the Book About Words, of which there is an apparently never-ending supply. I already have more than enough of these on my shelves to be going on with, but Paul Anthony Jones’s The Accidental Dictionary (Elliott & Thompson, £12.99) is certainly worth adding. It’s all about the changes in meaning that many words have experienced over the years. Hussy, for instance, originally meant housewife: somehow, calling someone a brazen housewife seems a less effective insult than it once did. Heartache originally meant heartburn, and heartburn originally meant lust. If you called someone buxom in 1867, you meant that they were obedient. I knew very few of these, which is a good thing, and now I know more, which is a better one.
Alexandra Coghlan’s Carols from King’s (BBC Books, £9.99) tells the stories of everyone’s favourite Christmas carols, from the grandeur of ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ (originally the less catchy ‘Hark How All The Welkin Rings’, welkin meaning the sky or heavens), to the blatantly commercial ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, a big hit for Gene Autry in the 1940s. Every song has its tale, and they are carefully collected in this bijou volume.
Smallest book of this batch is also by far the funniest. Highgate Mums, compiled by Dan Hall, is subtitled ‘Overheard Wisdom from the Ladies Who Brunch’, and you don’t have to live in Highgate (as I’m afraid I do) to know that these snippets of haute bourgeoise wisdom are terrifying accurate. It’s based on a Twitter account, as everything has to be now, but it will make you laugh out loud on page after page. Someone heard a very chic woman admonish her toddler with, ‘I just don’t understand your priorities right now.’ Or, overheard in a coffee shop, ‘Archway’s so bloody full of posh mums now that there’s no room in any of the cafés to put the pram.’ Or ‘The social etiquette for first playdates has obviously changed. She turned up without anything. Not even a shop-bought cake.’ Or, possibly my all-time favourite, ‘Like everyone, I am appalled by the Islamist attack on Charlie Hebdo. But I am also struck by its similarity to the plot of my last novel.’ It’s my favourite because I was there when it was spoken. Although not by me, I’m relieved to say.