Holiday Gift Books That Keep On Giving

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m heading this Book Scene with the grand old sales slogan online sources say was first used in 1926 by the Victor Talking Machine Company. My excuse is Brandon Stanton’s new book Humans (St. Martin’s $35) and its 2013 predecessor, Humans of New York: Stories.

Just as Victor’s phonographs and records kept on giving the gift of music to listeners, Stanton’s books and blogs offer an ongoing many-faceted gift of New York life to readers who love and are lonely for the locked-down city. I found myself engaged in a variation on the practice at a holiday office party centered on anonymous gifts chosen by number in an all-in-good-fun lottery, the idea being that the gift you just unwrapped could be traded for someone else’s. It happened that two years in a row, the gift-wrapped package I pulled out of the holiday grab bag contained Humans of New York, which proved to be one of the most continuously rewarding presents I’ve ever been given. What do you do when you’ve been given an extra copy of something that makes you smile whenever you open the covers to take a walk in Stanton’s New York? Do you cast the precious object back into the holiday trade winds for a colleague’s bottle of wine? No, you give it to a friend you hope will cherish it as much as you do, and all the better if the friend happens to be moving to the city.

Against the Labels

Humans extends Stanton’s range to people and cities in more than 40 countries, from Amsterdam to Tehran. In his introduction, he admits that after 10 years he’s still not sure what to call the creative enterprise that began with Humans of New York. “Photography project” seems “too reductive,” blog “a little too digital.” The scope of the concept “seems to strain against all the labels” he’s used in the past. In view of the geographical dimensions, the one word title makes sense, especially since it leaves the door open for New Yorkers, still the focus of some of the most appealing stories.

I know what Stanton means about labels, having found myself straining against “coffee table books” as a term that tilts too close to the idea of display for display’s sake. The volumes mentioned here are simply the ones I’d like to think offer something more lasting than their surface appearance or their value as conversation pieces.

The New York Spirit

In The Dairy Restaurant (Schocken $29.95), Ben Katchor “has captured the spirit of old Jewish New York,” according to the The New York Journal of Books, which compares it favorably to previous work like Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (2000), making note of the “fascinating hybrid format,” part history, philosophy, rumination, part graphic imagery” that “lovingly chronicles and restores a vanishing cultural fixture.”

At the Whitney

Another New York-based book is the monograph for the Whitney Museum’s acclaimed exhibit Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945 (Yale Univ. Press $65), which was closed to the public for five months during the coronavirus lockdown. On the occasion of the Whitney’s reopening in mid-August, the Financial Times’ Ariella Budick hailed Vida Americana as “an electric exhibition.” Visitors will have until January 31, 2021, to experience the show’s “grand drama.”

Editor/curator Barbara Haskell’s introduction refers to a “vision of Mexico” that “captured the American imagination as an antidote to the rootlessness and isolation of modern urban and industrial life.” While numerous American artists traveled to Mexico, the leading Mexican muralists — José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros — spent extended periods of time in the United States, executing murals, paintings, and prints; exhibiting their work; and interacting with local artists.

In his New York Times review of the show’s February opening, Holland Cotter draws attention to “three vital things” — “It reshapes a stretch of art history to give credit where credit is due; it suggests that the Whitney is, at last, on the way to fully embracing American art; and it offers yet another argument for why this country’s build-the-wall mania has to go. Judging by the story told here, we should be actively inviting our southern neighbor to enrich our cultural soil.”

Breaking Ground

Jane Hall’s Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women (Phaidon Press $49.95) has been cited by ELLE Decoration for the way it “marks and celebrates women’s roles in the architectural world, and presents a glorious visual manifesto of more than 180 exceptional buildings from around the world.” Writing in Art in America, Jessica Varner comments: “Within its bright red-and-orange covers, Breaking Ground brings together, in a starkly consistent format, completed buildings by women spanning more than a century. Arranged alphabetically by the architect’s last name, the entries each provide a photograph or two of a building, and a short biography of the structure’s architect, presenting the 180-plus projects as a diverse but united front.”

Jane Hall is the inaugural recipient of the British Council Lina Bo Bardi Fellowship and a founding member of Assemble, the London-based, Turner Prize-winning collective.

Exploring Livability

Of her book, Made for Living: Collected Interiors for All Sorts of Styles (Clarkson Potter $40), interior designer Amber Lewis says, “Livability is my true north. The materials I use time and again all change with age and wear. Not only is that okay, it’s how you achieve more than a re-creation of what you’ve already seen, or what somebody else has done.” Lewis is the principal and founder of Amber Interiors, a full-service firm that provides designs for everything from large-scale residences to extensive commercial projects. She and her team work with architects and contractors to bring to life the distinct visions seen in her work, on her blog, and in her retail shop. Lewis lives with her husband and daughter in Calabasas, California.

A New York Story

Wolf Kahn: Paintings and Pastels, 2010-2020 (Rizzoli Electa $55) celebrates the work of the American artist Wolf Kahn (1927-2020). A refugee from Nazi Germany who immigrated to the U.S. in 1940, he settled in New York City, where he studied with painter Hans Hofmann. It’s possible to imagine this longtime New Yorker among the “humans” who crossed Brandon Stanton’s path when the photographer was exploring the streets and parks and stories of the city between 2010 and 2020.

Co-authored by Hunter College Professor Emeritus of Art History William C. Agee and independent curator and art historian Sasha Nicholas, the volume focuses on the oil and pastel landscapes made during the last decade of Kahn’s life and was prepared in close collaboration with the artist. Nicholas puts Kahn in context with other artists and situates his late work within his broader career, while Agee, who met with Kahn for several interviews, discusses his process and most recent paintings.

Also included is a contribution by poet and literary critic J. D. McClatchy (1945-2018), who was editor of The Yale Review and president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In his poem, “Wolf’s Trees,” he writes of “melon or maize, solferino or smoke, / Colors into which a sunset will collapse / On a high branch of broken promises.”

A Field Guide for the World

“We usually define cities in terms of their bigness, so it’s easy to forget that our daily experience of any city is made up of countless tiny, intimate encounters.” Design critic and author Michael Bierut could be describing one of Brandon Stanton’s books, but he’s actually talking about The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $30) by Roman Mars, creator and host of the podcast of the same name, and its digital director and producer Kurt Kohlstedt.

Booklist calls The 99% Invisible City “A field guide for everywhere.” With a little tinkering, the same could be said of Brandon Stanton’s Humans, a global field guide to people and stories everywhere.

The term global has never been more significantly in evidence than during a year living in the shadow of a pandemic, where, at this writing, in-person visits to bookstores still need to be monitored. Such was the case during my late September visit to Labyrinth Books in Princeton, where several of these titles were on display.