A coffee table book needs to be an object of beauty, but to be recommended by experts on Five Books it also needs to be informative and enlightening. Below are all the coffee table books that have been recommended on our site, from Ancient Egypt to the 21st century.
“For a new coffee table book, there’s Ancient Rome: The Definitive Visual History. Two University of Oxford academics, Andrew James Sillett and Matthew Nicholls, consulted on the book. Nicholls specializes in 3D digital reconstruction of ancient Rome. The book starts in 753 BCE and goes through to the death of the last emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 CE. There is also some coverage of the Byzantine Empire, including Justinian’s legal code.” Read more...
Notable Nonfiction of Early Summer 2023
“I wanted to choose one book that demonstrates the intensely visual nature of Ancient Egypt; this one is full of fantastically beautiful art. And it is also one of the best recent examples of a coffee-table book, if you like. But it is a coffee-table book with some outstanding scholarship as well. Ancient Egypt is one of those subjects that lends itself to large-format books, and has done so for the last 200 years. This is one of the best. It has fantastic illustrations of sculpture, paintings, architecture and jewellery from the first great flowering of Ancient Egypt in the pyramid age. If you are going to have one book that really brings you face to face with some of the most glorious products of Ancient Egyptian civilisation, this is it.” Read more...
The best books on Ancient Egypt
“James is an architectural historian and this is a book he wrote with photographer Will Pryce, a wonderful photographer…he real strength of his book is in the section on the great European libraries of the 18th and 19th centuries. So it includes institutions I’ve been to like the Strahov Library in Prague, the Mafra in Portugal, the Admont Abbey Library, the Abbey Library of Saint Gall in Switzerland. These are extraordinary Baroque and Rococo creations, which look inside like wedding cakes. They’re absolutely amazing. I think this period is his specialty as an architectural historian, and he writes about them with great passion and interest and depth. I often use it as a way into library history, as a first port of call.” Read more...
The best books on Libraries
by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier
This book is about Frederick Douglass’s love affair with photography, which he was fascinated by. It contains all 160 photographic portraits of Frederick Douglass—from the first in around 1841 to the last in 1895—as well as his four essays on photography.
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“This is a coffee table book, though it’s currently on my shelf because my coffee table has a rotating set of books. It’s a beautiful book. Michael Carroll is an internationally reputed space artist, and he’s very knowledgeable. There are maybe 200 beautiful, full-color illustrations in the book.”
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“This book is a study of the life and work of Sinan, who was chief architect and who built most of his projects under Süleyman. He was probably of Armenian origin, from Central Anatolia. Ottoman agents would go to the provinces and select children for Ottoman service. This Armenian child became one of the most defining figures of Ottoman culture to this day. He was the most prolific architect of the entire span of the Empire. He was also extremely gifted. He developed both building methods and standards and new aesthetic styles for mosques large and small, for bridges, for convents, for soup kitchens. This book is about Sinan’s life and work. It gives an exhaustive list of everything he ever built…This is a wonderful book. It’s a serious scholarly work but it’s also the best coffee table book that you could buy for your friends who are interested in Ottoman history. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book.” Read more...
The best books on Sultan Süleyman
“This is a humongous book filled with beautiful photographs. Some are large enough to spread over two pages, showing famous Silk Road sites and works of art. It’s really a visual treasure. Among all these books, this is the coffee table book. It also has the most expansive definition of the Silk Road. It includes Africa, Europe and Asia. There are fabulous maps throughout the book.” Read more...
The best books on The Silk Road
“Several years ago, Christian became interested in plankton, because of the so-called ‘Tara’ expedition. Tara is a French midsized sail boat that went around the world sampling organisms from all over, actually following some of the same lines as Darwin’s journey in the Beagle. Christian started to image organisms during that period. It’s an incredibly beautiful book, almost a coffee table book, but it’s also a serious science book. You could take it as both. The beautiful photographs and colours are of organisms from the plankton that are photosynthetic — the phytoplankton — to zooplankton, to larvae of various animals in their planktonic phase. For those who don’t know, the word plankton is from the Greek. It’s the same root as the word ‘planet.’ It means to drift. By definition, plankton are organisms that cannot control their horizontal motion in the water.” Read more...
The best books on Microbes
“After the massive, wordy tomes I’ve just mentioned it may come as a relief to turn to what is essentially a gorgeous coffee table book. Claire Nouvian’s The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss is a large format, full colour bestiary of the real, containing photographs of a couple of hundred among the countless astonishing creatures that live beneath the shallow sunlit layer at the top of the world ocean.” Read more...
The Best Books for Growing up in the Anthropocene
“This is a coffee table book but it’s a very, very good coffee table book. It’s produced by Kew Gardens and it’s just got fabulous pictures, full-page spreads of plants and pretty much everything you might want to know about plants in general. There’s a section called ‘The world of plants’ about their evolution and what they do for us, a section on weeds, and if you love plants this is a fun book to read. It’s quite dense. It’s not a children’s book by any means and it deals with conservation and global warming and it’s full of pictures and it’s very nice! Plants with bulbs, climbing plants, bamboos. Everything.” Read more...
The best books on Plants
“Harry Potter: A History of Magic is also an exhibition catalogue and a fascinating coffee table book, available both in hardcover and paperback. The British Library exhibition, which marked the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter, encouraged visitors to think about the magical traditions that underpin the Harry Potter world.” Read more...
The Best Illustrated Harry Potter Books
Our Children's Editor,
Five Books Editor
“I love 20th-century design from Art Deco to post-war French and this is a key interior design text, a furniture reference book – Les Decorateurs des Annees 40. It’s genius. It covers all those designers in France who have influenced every modern decorator; these designers who have given incredible stimulus to design. You will recognise the pieces, like the iron work of Gilbert Poillerat – just wonderful. It goes from the neoclassical and art deco to more contemporary lines. You get a lot of bang for your buck here. It is a great coffee table book or reference book or gift. If you’re a real nerd like me it’s got a fantastic bibliography and you can go on to study the work of other wonderful designers.” Read more...
The best books on Interior Design