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2020 Holiday Book List

Books are just magic. The smell of the pages, the feel of the binding, the weight of paper in our hands, and the lullingly hushed sound of turned pages are all as memorable and meaningful as the stories and images they surround. Books can offer a safe harbor, a portal to alternate reality, a rallying cry for justice, a guide for self-betterment, or simply a beautiful piece of artistry for your home. Regardless of what role it plays in your life, a book is something to cherish and, by extension, something to share with those you care about. Books are experiential, and their ability to perform for and transport us make them the ripest of gift options.

This year we are sharing a few of our favorite books, specifically those we've found to be most impactful in 2020. Some are intricately woven fictional tales, some rely predominantly on imagery, some are provocative minimalist exercises. There may not be a theme —or frankly consistency— to this list but the dissimilarity is something that honors the tumultuous year 2020 has been.


by Robert Macfarlane

Cover of "The Lost Words" book with a dandelion and flying bird illustrations

Lost Words, written by Robert Macfarlane and Illustrated by Jackie Morris, may be the gift we give most this year. Macfarlane compiled a stunning collection of nature words that have slowly been removed from children's dictionaries, to make room for those that describe our increasingly digital existences. Alongside the words are magnificent and tender poems and illustrations that offer a nostalgic window into the nature being forgotten. The poems by Macfarlane alone leave us weak at the knees. There is a simplicity that renders the book perfect for children, but because of the masterful artistry and the enchantment of the Macfarlane's words, we firmly believe that this is an exceptional book to share with absolutely everyone, regardless of age.

A gorgeous, hand-illustrated, large-format spell book celebrating the magic and wonder of the natural world. All over the country, there are words disappearing from children's lives. Words like Dandelion, Otter, Bramble, Acorn and Lark represent the natural world of childhood, a rich landscape of discovery and imagination that is fading from children's minds. The Lost Words stands against the disappearance of wild childhood. It is a joyful celebration of the poetry of nature words and the living glory of our distinctive, British countryside. With acrostic spell-poems by peerless wordsmith Robert Macfarlane and hand-painted illustrations by Jackie Morris, this enchanting book captures the irreplaceable magic of language and nature for all ages. (1)


by Massimo Listri

This book is an unabashed piece of art. 560 massive pages are bound together to form a truly gorgeous book that weighs—no exaggeration—almost 15 and a half pounds. This may seem excessive, but the weightiness and dramatized scale seem downright necessary to convey the grandeur and majesty of the libraries Listri photographed. Some are historically ornate while others are ferociously contemporary, but each library is an oasis of literary magic that feels close enough to touch. For bibliphiles and aesthetes alike, The World's Most Beautiful Libraries makes an unforgettable gift.

From the mighty halls of ancient Alexandria to a camel bookmobile on the Kenyan-Somali border, human beings have had a long, enraptured relationship with libraries. Like no other concept and like no other space, the collection of knowledge, learning, and imagination offers a sense of infinite possibility. It's the unrivaled realm of discovery, where every faded manuscript or mighty clothbound tome might reveal a provocative new idea, a far-flung fantasy, an ancient belief, a religious conviction, or a whole new way of being in the world. In this new photographic journey, Massimo Listri travels to some of the oldest and finest libraries to reveal their architectural, historical, and imaginative wonder. Through great wooden doors, up spiraling staircases, and along exquisite, shelf-lined corridors, he leads us through outstanding private, public, educational, and monastic libraries, dating as far back as 766. (2)


by Kurt Johannessen

Kurt Johannessen is a fascinating man and an extraordinary artist. To give you an idea of who he is, we first discovered him after finding his book, Steinar [Stones], which documents a project where he read 22 fairy tales about trolls to 22 unique rocks he selected while hiking in Finse. It's utterly bizarre and yet deliciously reasonable. But the series we are sharing here contain exercises offered to the reader. These four books—which in our opinion, should be gifted as a set— prompt the reader to engage with the world though a series of expectedly unexpected assignments. Think "lift a rock that is heavier than you can lift", "eat peas and think of princesses", and "let two ants walk on your head". A few of our favorite tasks are shared in the photographs below. There is an evident deeply rooted connection to nature, a beseeching to find whimsy and presentness, and a humorous existentialism that we simply adore.


by Mr. Fish

Mr. Fish is, for lack of a better descriptor, a political cartoonist. With an unparalleled talent for generating a body of work that manages to offend everyone in one way or another, Fish shares drawings and captions that highlight false truths, societal short comings, and failings of humanity as a whole. Mostly harping on religious, economic, and political offenses, Fish utilizes savagely sharp satire to successfully portray the realities of life with clarifying wit and cutting humor. But it's important to recognize that he does so without a drop of innate cynicism; at his core, Fish is simply cursed with unenviable and stunningly unbiased clarity on the state of the world.

In this tumultuous time of division, injustice, and unnervingly deep-seated frustration, we find ourselves turning more and more to Mr. Fish to clear through any political misdirections or over-simplified activism and offer a glimmer of the hard truth. We can always count on Fish to make us look, make us see, and make us feel, for better or worse. GO FISH makes an outstanding gift for anyone feeling the endless repercussions of existing in the 2020 reality.

Mr. Fish dissects the journalistic responsibility he faces as a cartoonist to make it make sense. It being his raw emotional output in response to a given stimuli (government, society, et al) manifesting itself via pen on paper without regard to the cleverly pointed punchline that will accompany and ultimately define it. . . The drawings are a celebration of the technical mastery and unbridled emotional truth of Dwayne Booth -- the Clark Kent to Superman's Mr. Fish. (Huffington Post)


by Lizan Freijsen

A stack of books
Image by ICA Books

Lizan Freijsen compiled a series of photographs of stains, mold, and fungi as a way to showcase the beauty of these overlooked and often inconvenient happenings. In her photos, lichens form concentric ripples of gradiating color, tea and coffee rings offer trace proof of past consumption, fungus erupts into bubbling pillars, and various stains produce washes and spirals of groovy color. While you may not have considered photographs of stains to be a worthwhile holiday gift purchase, we assure you they're thoughtfully arranged, revealing disarmingly beautiful.

The Living Surface reveals a segment of the world that is resoundingly deemed undesirable when, in fact, it's an unpretentious and unexpected moment of delicately alluring natural artistry in our daily lives. As Freijsen notes, "embracing imperfection is in fact a responds to the over-controlled society in which we live. Witnessing the beauty of slow growing processes and being surrounded by urban nature connects inner time with a sense of home.” And it is this message, captured by Freijsen through The Living Surface, that we gift to our loved ones.

The central themes in this publication are transformation and time, in the course of which the unwanted gains significance. Artist and designer Lizan Freijsen is fascinated by stains, fungi and mildew. By turning moisture stains into textiles, Lizan Freijsen focuses on these blind spots and visualizes their beauty. The Living Surface: an Alternative Biology Book on Stains by Lizan Freijsen gives an overview of her extensive photo-archive with a wide-range of categories of traces of decay, and a selection of her unique hand-made carpets, tapestries and blankets produced in the last eight years. (3)


by Max Porter

We don't often share novels (they seem to occupy the majority of literary internet conversation) but this book, this glorious book, is a treasure that we had to share. In Lanny, a mythical shapeshifting—potentially botanical—figure, called Dead Papa Toothwort, is 'entwined' with a small town outside of London and develops a deep and intent commitment to omnipotently watching an eccentric 'ethereal' boy, Lanny. Lanny, somewhat detached from the reality of the world around him, holds an innocent and innate connection to nature and undauntedly interjects his personal magic into his surrounding—leaving messages on shrubs or in the bottom of seed pots for farmers to discover—despite ample criticism from those around him. Toothwort, like the boy, revels in the mundanity of the city life around him. Toothwort enthusiastically takes a bright orange Fanta cap on a tour of the city village, although the Fanta cap succumbs to the power of boredom and tunes-out. However, Toothwort recognizes the hypocrisy and cruelty that also live within the village residents. Ultimately, the tale turns to a disquieting, but entirely entrancing and necessary darkness that perfectly round out a miraculously good tale with mystery, balance, and restoration.

Porter has a remarkable, albeit labyrinthine, hold of language and presents a story that is nothing short of mesmerizing. Some of the text ripples at the margins and, when we came across it, we wondered if it was an artistic choice on Porter's part or if we had become so hypnotized that we perceived the words to be wobbling (fortunately, it was the former!). Simply put, Lanny is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

This chimerical, audacious, strange, and brilliant novel will enrapture readers with its anarchic energy, with its bewitching tapestry of fabulism and domestic drama. Lanny is a ringing defense of creativity, spirit, and the generative forces that often seem under assault in the contemporary world, and it solidifies Porter's reputation as one of the most daring and sensitive writers of his generation. (4)

edited by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Strata is a beautifully artistic collection of William Smith's illustrative geologic work, composed by Oxford University Museum of Natural History (which evidently has a remarkable eye for aesthetics!). Glorious illustrations offer an entirely unique depiction of our world. Waves of colour—torrid yellows, rusted oranges, and hazy mauves—delineate geologic boundaries on landmasses with astonishing detail. Rivers, surface texture, and map labelings merge to create a dizzying web of line work beneath Smith's geological indicators. Additionally, dense fossil illustrations provide a more recognizable and approachable insight into the history of our planet.

Strata is a confidently nerdy book and that's what makes it so exceptional. The pages contain the stunning works of a visionary geologist, framed by essays "that places Smith’s work in the context of earlier, concurrent, and subsequent ideas regarding the structure and natural processes of the earth, geographical mapping, and biostratigraphical theories" (5). Strata makes an exceptional gift for those who love geology, geography, history, science, or art. Plus the foreword is written by Robert Macfarlane who gave us Lost Words!


by Gerardo Madera

We have a profound affinity for typography at ARCANISA, so it's not surprising that we were immediately taken by Gerardo Madera's unique deconstruction of visual language. We will quickly share the synopsis, then we'll offer our take on what makes Name, Thing, Thing such a success.

Name, Thing, Thing is a compilation of thoughts, quotations, fragments, on and around typographic intervention as resistance against the colonial embeds of typographic tradition—a pursuit analogous to strategies long used by people of color to subvert or reclaim defined historical narratives and traditions as a means of survival. Cultural remapping, hybrid and subversive form-making and discursive histories are tactics explored in Name, Thing, Thing to locate potential channels of articulation in decolonizing typography. (6)

The book is divided into two section: the first, "a performative text [that] attempts to cobble together what a methodology that actively combats typography’s inherent homogenization of language and form might look like" and the second a collection of images intended to lead an exploration of a genuine decolonized expressive language. We admit that, prior to reading this book, we hadn't considered the colonial impact on typography. While Madera poses no concrete solution to rectify this invasive impact, Madera offers a beautiful exploration and discussion of the fluidity and diversity of written language. We adore the imagery of part two and how communicative it is, introducing the possibility that expression and language are infinite. Name, Thing, Thing provides a fantastic and unique perspective on decolonialization that we feel deserves amplification.

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