The year 2010 may have been an unsettled one for publishers, but that didn’t keep them from issuing a wealth of fine additions to the look-it-up shelf. Here, in no particular order, are 10 of our favorites.


LOOKING FOR MORE GREAT GIFTS? Check out our Kids/YA best of 2010 lists for the younger crowd. 


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Barnet Schecter, George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His Maps (Walker & Co., $67.50): Before he became the commanding general of Continental forces during the Revolution and then father of his country, George Washington surveyed the territory and drew maps. He also collected them throughout every stage of his life, eventually binding his trove of maps into an atlas. Eminent historian Barnet Schecter takes us through these maps to show how they reflected both Washington’s interests and the development of the early nation.

Bernd Brunner, Moon: A Brief History (Yale Univ. Press, $25.00). Imagine if we had no moon. The night sky would be cold and dark, and Pink Floyd would have had that much less to sing about. Bernd Brunner serves up a learned but fluently written almanac of things lunar, with less emphasis on the science of the whirling orb than on the uses we have made of it in art, literature, folklore and the imagination over time.

Kenneth T. Jackson, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York City, second edition (Yale Univ. Press, $65.00). Is there anyone who doubts that New York City is the greatest metropolis on the planet? If so, let that person be bombarded with facts and figures from this thorough reference, which weighs in at nearly 1,500 closely set, triple-column pages. Once exposed to the glories of DUMBO, the scenic wonders of Spuyten Duyvil Creek and the history of the MetroCard. Anyone who treasures Gotham will find this encyclopedia an embarrassment of riches, as well as an endless source of information and trivia.

Neil Cossar, This Day in Music: An Everyday Record of Musical Feats and Facts (Omnibus Press, $29.95). On Jan. 2, 1969, New Jersey authorities seized a shipment of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album Two Virgins, refusing to release it until the bare-nakedness of the cover was securely sheathed in brown paper, the better to protect delicate sensibilities in the Garden State. Forty years later on July 11, 2009, the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” hit No. 1 on the charts, replacing their single “Boom Boom Pow”—only the fourth time a band had done so, the first instance being, yes, The Beatles. Cossar’s compendium is a wealth of such trivia—which, of course, to a sonic fanatic is of the utmost importance.  

Adrian Room, Placenames of the World, second edition (McFarland & Co., $85.00). Who was Harper, what did he ferry, and why does he have a town in West Virginia named for him? Who named New York? Why does Finnish Helsinki have a half-Swedish name? Adrian Room’s book answers these and many other questions about names on the map.

Patrick O’Brien, ed., Atlas of World History, second edition (Oxford Univ. Press, $49.95). Conjure up the name “Aztec Empire,” and you may think of something vast and grand—as surely it was to its owners. Look at this beautifully drawn and printed atlas, however, and you’ll see that, allowing for hairpin mountain roads, you can drive across Montezuma’s realm in a day. Meanwhile, a map that shows the distribution of factories in England during the Industrial Revolution drives home why the Midlands should have been so important to world economic history. Readers who enjoy history will find this an invaluable companion.

Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most and Salvatore Settis, The Classical Tradition (Belknap/Harvard Univ. Press, $49.95). There was a time, and not so long ago, when the mention of “Amazon” would bring up an image of a one-breasted woman warrior, not a warehouse in Nevada. Just so, Socrates’ last words (which were probably not, “I drank what!?”) were once known to every schoolchild. We’re not well schooled in the classics these days, though allusions to classical literature and history still abound—the occasion for this comprehensive companion covering everything from the Academy of Athens to ancient zoos.

Allan Metcalf, OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word (Oxford Univ. Press, $18.95). America’s greatest export isn’t Madonna, or case-hardened steel, or the Big Mac. No, it’s the word “okay,” which originated in a newspaper of 1839 and spread like a verbal rash throughout American English and from there into nearly every language of the world. Metcalf’s entertaining linguistic history is a treat for logophiles. 

Christopher Somerville, Never Eat Shredded Wheat: The Geography We’ve Lost and How to Find It Again (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99). “Harvard students can go from kindergarten to graduate school without ever making contact with geography, and then lead the country into war after graduation,” notes the eminent geographer Harm de Blij on the blog Geographic Travels. Apparently knowledge of the world has declined isn’t much better on the other side of across the water toothough, leading British geographer Christopher Somerville to write this lively, lighthearted primer about the British Isles. It’s an Anglo-centric book, but Americans should enjoy learning all about Rutland, home of the Rutles and England’s smallest shire.

Michael Suarez and H.R. Woudhuysen, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Book (Oxford Univ. Press, $325.00). For the very deserving bibliophile in the house, you could find no better gift than this overstuffed two-volume compendium of book history. The first volume contains essays devoted to regional literacy—the development of the book in the Iberian Peninsula, say, or the history of the book in China; the second is an encyclopedic dictionary, with entries on such matters as the elephant folio, Sir John Tenniel, and even online publishing. Magisterial, huge and essential.