By Sara VilkomersonAdam Markovitz and Tina Jordan
Updated December 03, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

From movie-star portraits to wildlife snapshots (and what’s the difference, really?), the visuals featured here are, in a word, arresting. These aren’t books to curl up with for hours on end; they’re books to leaf through, exclaim over, and leave out on display for everyone to enjoy. Here’s a list of the ones we’re dying to take home this season — even if it means buying a second coffee table to fit them all.

Science & Nature
Atlas Maior of 1665 Joan Blaeu & Peter van der Krogt
Taschen, $44.09
A book of maps? Well, yes. But this deluxe reissue of a 17th-century classic — the most famous atlas of its day — is also a visually stunning history lesson.

Great Migrations K.M. Kostyal
National Geographic, $23.10
In the official companion to the fall TV special, zebras throng the East African plains, sharks slice through the waters off Baja California, and king penguins totter across islands of the Southern Ocean. The photos are rendered in instantly recognizable National Geographic style, vivid and clear.

Oxford Atlas of the World
Oxford University Press, $45
Don’t think of this as just a book of maps either: Besides fascinating essays, charts, and graphs, it includes a dazzling section of satellite photography (images of Haiti taken right after the earthquake clearly show the earth’s rift; Kabul, Afghanistan, appears to float in a bowl created by the surrounding mountains).

Smithsonian Natural History: The Ultimate Visual Guide to Everything on Earth
DK Publishing, $30
The reference book isn’t defunct, and this fabulous primer proves it. With charming, almost old-fashioned detail, the pages peppered with exceptional photos, the Smithsonian delineates Earth’s species and specimens: fossils, figs, flying foxes, and beyond.

Through the Eyes of the Vikings: An Aerial Vision of Arctic Lands Robert B. Haas
National Geographic, $31.50
For most of us, there is probably no part of the world less familiar than the area beyond the Arctic Circle. As Haas’ photos reveal, it’s not a bleak expanse of snow and ice but a starkly beautiful land carved by glaciers, currents, and wind.

Design & Details
Encyclopedia of the Exquisite: An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights Jessica Kerwin Jenkins
Doubleday, $15.37
This gilded, graceful book is nothing less than a miniature encyclopedia of style, exploring everything from the origins of badminton to the art of origami to Louis XIV’s love of the Bartlett pear.

I Wonder Marian Bantjes
The Monacelli Press, $26.40
In this sumptuous little book — its covers encrusted with gold and silver embossing — Bantjes, a visual artist, riffs on the things that inspire us, managing to be simultaneously playful, provocative, and funny.

Paper Blossoms: A Book of Beautiful Bouquets for the Table Ray Marshall
Chronicle Books, $23.10
Real flowers wilt, so this eye-catching display of pop-up floral extravagance comes with a built-in advantage. Five bouquets, featuring roses, lilies, and even a lotus water garden, are ready to be arranged as a centerpiece (aroma not included).

Pattern Orla Kiely
Conran, $23.09
Fans of the European designer will cheer for this handsome tome, flaunting Kiely’s signature prints — sunny, blocky, and bright — alongside explanations of her methods and inspirations.

A Perfectly Kept House Is the Sign of a Misspent Life Marly Randolph-Cartier
Rizzoli, $34.65
Messy people, rejoice! Finally, here’s a book made expressly for you — a lavishly photographed design bible that celebrates living stylishly, creatively, and, above all else, happily without fretting about whether everything is in its proper place.

History Revisited
Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition Jane Austen
Belknap Press, $23.10
Austen’s most famous novel needs no introduction, but it does benefit from the hundreds of loving notes — historical references, vocab tips, and more — provided by Austen scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks.

The New York Times Complete Civil War 1861 – 1865 Edited by Harold Holzer & Craig L. Symonds
Black Dog & Leventhal, $24
The book and accompanying DVD-ROM overflow with 100,000 documents from the Times archive chronicling the war that Bill Clinton, in the foreword, calls the ”most transformative conflict in our history.”

Art & Film
Frida Kahlo: Face to Face Judy Chicago & Frances Borzello
Prestel, $40.95
Fittingly, the cover of this retrospective, which examines Kahlo’s work from a feminist perspective, evokes a silver-tooled Mexican retablo.

Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction Cathy Whitlock
It Books, $47.25
This lush book of pictures and drawings showcases big-screen glamour over the decades, from the opulence of Cleopatra to the more modern majesty of Batman Begins.

The Sounds of Star Wars J.W. Rinzler
Chronicle Books, $37.80
What would Star Wars be without the whoosh of a lightsaber or the howl of Chewbacca? This interactive book not only categorizes the familiar sounds from the beloved universe but can actually play more than 250 of them thanks to an attached exterior speaker.

Islamic Art Luca Mozzati
Prestel, $61.67
Fourteen centuries’ worth of glorious mosaics, carpets, paintings, and more — many off-limits in places like Iran and Iraq — adorn these pages.

Photo Books
America by Car Lee Friedlander
DAP, $32.97
An award-winning photographer, Friedlander captures the spectacular diversity of the U.S. — from Wild West vistas to NYC cityscapes — in crisp black-and-white images framed by the windows and dashboards of rental cars. All the fun of a great road trip — without spending a dime on gas.

Café Society Thierry Coudert
Flammarion, $47.25 You may not recognize all the names in this who’s who of the rich and fabulous from the period between 1920 and 1960. (Countess Pecci-Blunt, anyone?) But poring over photos of socialites, royals, and their surroundings is enough to make anyone feel like an honorary member of the beau monde.

Beaton: The Art of the Scrapbook James Danziger
Assouline, $157.50 Cecil Beaton practically defined the art of the celebrity portrait with iconic images in Vogue and Vanity Fair. But in this facsimile edition of his private scrapbooks, his own work takes a backseat to the photos that inspired him, from magazine shots to newspaper clippings.

Greatest of All Time: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali Taschen, $94.50
It’s fitting that the legendary heavyweight champion should have a book that tips the scales at more than 15 pounds. Packed with essays, interviews, and over a thousand photos, this monument to Ali’s life and career is nothing short of a knockout.

All prices are from Amazon.com

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