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The Great Gift Books Weigh-in

Here are some of the best—and heftiest—holiday coffee-table books around

Any sports book that costs $40 or $50 and weighs more than a holiday turkey should meet certain criteria before being considered as a Christmas gift. To wit:

•The contents should be original. No recycled golf and tennis tournament programs, thank you, and no collections of 10-year-old game photographs.

•The photographs should be better than the text, no matter how good the text. Why pay through the nose for folio-sized pages and coated paper if the best images are mental?

•The book should not be the licensed property of the NFL, NBA, NHL, NCAA, PGA Tour, Major League Baseball or any other literary-euthanasia society.

•The identical material should not be available for $10 as a calendar.

These are the basics. A really good coffee-table book delivers somewhat more, taking us behind the scenes, beneath the surface, above the fray and, in rare instances, beyond the imagination.

Among the season's best is A Year at the Races (Viking, $35). This insider's look at thoroughbred racing comes with a twist: The authors, Robert B. and Joan H. Parker, aren't insiders at all, but na‚àö√òfs. (He is the author of the Spenser detective novels; she's a screenwriter and producer.) The Parkers accepted the invitation of horse owner Cot Campbell and followed the horses of his Dogwood Stables through a typical racing year. When the Parkers weren't bellying up to the groaning board at upscale dinner parties, they were visiting auction paddocks, betting windows and tack rooms from Saratoga to Hialeah.

"I know nothing of racing," Robert Parker confesses at the outset of A Year at the Races. "I know nothing of horses." This seeming handicap proves to be the book's strength. Even when Parker lapses into Spenserese ("Our driver was a New Yorker, a man who knows the city the way your tongue knows the contours of your teeth"), the text sparkles with fresh imagery. Whether he's describing Miami's Collins Avenue ("rows of hotels that looked vaguely like Iraqi bus stations") or horses standing at stable doors ("looking like those old pictures of French prostitutes in Montmartre, gazing out of the windows of their rooms, luring the farm boys under the gaslights"), Parker reports with an unjaded eye.

If photographer William Strode's color photographs do not actually surpass Parker's words, they at least equal them and amplify the text in unexpected ways. A lazier photographer might have shipped a trayload of his stock slides to the publisher, but Strode traveled with the Parkers and Campbells and documented their doings. He gives us Camp-bell peering apprehensively through his fingers during a yearling auction; a teenage rider reading a letter with a dozing cat on her lap; horses breaking from the gate and clearing steeplechase hurdles. Like a good musical accompanist, Strode knows when to provide unobtrusive support and when to show his virtuosity. His two-page spread of grooms hosing down their horses under the trees at Hialeah is worth 10 clichèd photos of the famous infield flamingos.

There's even a plot payoff to A Year at the Races. Dogwood's Summer Squall, whom we meet as a "splay-footed, wild-eyed yearling" at the Aiken (S.C.) trials, goes on to win the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga and, ultimately, the 1990 Preakness.

Nothing so idiosyncratic awaits the reading golfer this Christmas, but at least one oversized picture book escapes the postcardlike tedium of the "World's Ten Thousand Greatest Courses" genre. The Random House International Encyclopedia of Golf' ($60) is neither comprehensive enough nor dull enough to be called "encyclopedic." Somehow it actually entertains readers—mostly through its lively design, which mixes clever graphics and bold typography into an eye-appealing whole. Sidebars, maps, boxes and cutlines give life to such hoary conventions as "the game's 100 greatest personalities and players" and "the 100 greatest championship courses." Malcolm Campbell's text, admirably concise and free of hyperbole, inspires trust, and Campbell has the good sense to lean on Scottish golf historian Bobby Burnet for his chapters on the game's "misty origins." No surprises here, but a crackling good production.

On the small-type front—and we're talking small, small type—St. Martin's Press has issued The Football Encyclopedia ($49.95). Compiled and written by David S. Neft and the late Richard M. Cohen, this straightforward history of professional football in America is modeled on the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, right down to the book's dust jacket. Neft and Cohen, give us the scores of every game from 1920 to 1991, seasonal and lifetime statistics from all eras, and more than 250,000 words of historical text, including year-by-year recaps for each NFL team. There are no photographs, and there is no color and no excitement, but the volume is a valuable reference work nonetheless.

Mountain climbers will get a lift from Mount McKinley: The Conquest of Denali (Abrams, $60); flatlanders will probably want to pass. The text, by veteran climbers of McKinley (or Denali as it is known to many Alaskans) Bradford Washburn and David Roberts, recounts a century of dogged effort by those who have challenged the mountain, North America's highest peak. Pages of dense type, as daunting as the mountain's Upper Icefall flank Washburn's superb aerial photographs, and as stunning as these images are, they suffer, particularly in the book's first half, from a sameness of perspective and a mystifying disregard for the humans who inhabit the text.

No such caveat need be attached to Tom Turner's Sierra Club: 100 Years of Protecting Nature (Abrams, $49.50). Man and nature more comfortably share the pages of this elegant history of the conservation group, which is fitting, because peaceful coexistence has long been the club's principal goal. Tracing the Sierra Club's development from a 19th-century nature organization into a national lobby with more than 650,000 members, Turner chronicles the organization's key battlefields—Yosemite National Park, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Dinosaur National Monument—and details the internal dispute that led to the forced resignation, in 1969, of executive director David Brower.

Turner's text, while free of polemics, clearly embraces the Sierra Club's mission. Three hundred nature photographs and illustrations make the club's case even more eloquently, taking us into the snowy, moonlit Himalayas and across the starfish-littered tidal flats of Gambier Bay, Alaska. As Frederick Turner reminds us in his introduction,"... no piece of American land, however sanctified by historical association, popular regard, or binding legislation is ever utterly safe from development. All of it—all—is potentially real estate."

The Sierra Club, of course, publishes books of its own. The treasure of this year's holiday list is Amazonia ($40), photojournalist Loren McIntyre's paean to the peoples and ecology of the Amazon River system. It is one of those rare books that can transport us beyond our imaginations.

First, there are the images: green light filtering through the rain forest canopy, clouds of yellow butterflies, a Kamayurà archer taking aim at a bottom-dwelling stingray, a jaguar wrestling with a juvenile crocodile in brown water, Indian boys perched precariously on a fish trap over the surging waters of the Devil's Cataract.

And then there are the words, which often astonish. The ground squirms underfoot with enormous insects and grubs crawling amid husks of forest fruits and bodies of blind rats....

Scourge of the canopy and master of vertical flight, the harpy eagle flits from branch to branch like a twenty-pound hummingbird. With talons as big as a man's hand, it seizes motionless sloths and fleeing monkeys....

He [a black tamandua anteater] looked like he'd landed from Mars on a rainy day. At bay on a forest road, he faced me and brandished his powerful claws...capable of ripping apart a termite nest or even an intruder such as I, if I ventured too close.

Some Yanomamö still grind the bones of their deceased and add them to soup. And to find a gourmet delicacy, they put an ear to a dead palm trunk and listen for the crunching of an edible grub burrowing through the pith.

At 2.5 million square miles, Amazonia is so big as to beggar description—almost large enough, McIntyre informs us, to cover the face of the full moon. Yet we are reminded that this vast ecosystem, along with its native populations, is imperiled. Species are disappearing, trees are falling, tribes await extinction. And we, apparently, are to blame. "People have arrived so recently in Amazonia that in the forest their presence is anomalous," writes McIntyre. "With the arrival of the Johnny-come-latelies came the technological skill to muck up the natural order irrevocably."

But don't expect an environmentalist tract. Amazonia is pure adventure, a float trip through domains few of us would dare explore.

And that's a gift for all seasons.