Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Rebecca Fassola

“Coffee table book” is one of those vague terms that nonetheless conveys a very clear concept. It’s a book made for idle browsing, something that can be picked up and put down at will, capable of being opened to at random with the expectation of being fleetingly entertaining. It doesn’t have to include visual art, but it does imply slightly headier pleasures than a copy of, say, Even More Top Ten Lists From The Late Show With David Letterman. Unfortunately, with this territory comes an awful lot of boring crap. (Almost everyone has a relative who keeps some stultifying tome of Mid-American waterfowl ancestry on their living room table.) So we have taken it upon ourselves to review this past year’s publications to find seven releases that deserve the title of “coffee table books we can wholeheartedly endorse.” Some are art-based, some are humorous, but all of them are deep dives into their respective material, while still being engaging and cool on a visceral, primal-brain level. We don’t make a dime from this list (we really didn’t think that through, in retrospect), but here are the books that made us most eager to curl up on a couch and start flipping through their pages.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: A Visual History

Be transported—not via trolley this time—back into the world of childhood wonder created by Fred Rogers with this engrossing and nostalgia-tweaking book. Featuring exclusive backstage photos, episode guides, and interviews and stories with everyone from guests like Yo-Yo Ma to the aforementioned trolley’s operator, this collection manages to cover both the breadth of Rogers’ achievement and the depth of his painstakingly committed work of making every child feel special. Reading it is like revisiting the series: recognizing old friends, learning about Herculean behind-the-scenes efforts bringing the show to life, and being reminded—on nearly every page—just how singular Fred Rogers really was. [Alex McLevy]

Movies (And Other Things) by Shea Serrano (illustrated by Arturo Torres)

Shea Serrano’s latest collection of pop culture-inspired essays and queries is brought to life as much by Serrano’s witty prose as Arturo Torres’ whimsical illustrations. The chapter titled “Were The Jurassic Park Raptors Just Misunderstood?” becomes a real head-scratcher thanks to Torres’ drawing of a velociraptor getting baptized by a biblical figure (if John The Baptist can forgive this man-eating dinosaur, who are we to do otherwise?). Pick up Movies (And Other Things) to both read through Serrano’s musings on the best tough-guy dog owners in film and to see Torres’ rendering of an all-queen-bee high school clique. [Danette Chavez]

Anatomy: Exploring The Human Body

Phaidon has become one of the leading lights of visually arresting coffee table books that explore major touchstones of human art and understanding without feeling either stodgy or pandering. Following Universe, Plant, and Animal, we now can add Anatomy to the press’ pantheon of excellent works: The meticulously chosen team of curators has compiled 300 images’ worth of the evolution of our knowledge of the human body, spanning 5,000 years of attempts to depict our weird and wondrous physical casings. It’s not the most pop culture-ready of topics, but it’s pretty damn universal in its value. [Alex McLevy]

Keep Scrolling Till You Feel Something: 21 Years Of Humor From McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency is now old enough to drink legally, which makes us feel old, which in turn makes us feel like drinking. While we do, we’ll thumb through Keep Scrolling Till You Feel Something, a hefty anthology of writing published throughout the humor site’s 21 years of existence—from now-ubiquitous pieces like “I’m Comic Sans, Asshole” to more recent gems like “If People Talked To Other Professionals The Way They Talk To Teachers.” The individual entries are on the shorter side, so this is a good one to dip in and out of. And while there are no pretty pictures to gape at, each one of the book’s 680 pages is lined in gold, so consider this a recommendation for people who enjoy satire or who just like shiny things. [Laura Adamczyk]

Stanley Donwood: There Will Be No Quiet

The artist and writer best known as Radiohead’s longtime visual collaborator, Stanley Donwood’s book is the kind of sprawling combination of memoir and art that begs for closer inspection with each read. Alternating between collections of arresting artwork and a written chronology of projects he describes as “about 20 years of me trying to be an artist,” There Will Be No Quiet is about as sharp and self-aware as memoirs from visual artists get. Donwood is funny and self-deprecating, even as he reveals the behind-the-scenes thinking and process to some of the most striking pop-art imagery of the past few decades. [Alex McLevy]

The Hard Times: The First 40 Years

The Hard Times is like if the jokes on our sister site The Onion were built almost exclusively around the punk and hardcore scene. Sample headline: “I Know I’m Supposed To Like Fugazi, But I Don’t Know How.” That might seem hyper-niche or even alienating, but somehow the satirical brand’s remained prolific, hilarious, and shockingly relevant since launching in 2014. Adopting the persona of aging punks, the authors behind The First 40 Years bundle acidic jokes and incisive industry commentary in articles that celebrate and eviscerate the scene as it’s evolved from the Buzzcocks to Blink-182. [Randall Colburn]

Musings Vols. 1+2

Former A.V. Club film editor Scott Tobias edited these two volumes of thoughtful and erudite film criticism, culled from Oscilloscope Laboratories’ Musings blog. Featuring a panoply of essays on cinema from the silent era to now (more than a few of which were penned by A.V. Club contributors past and present), the focus is on the unexpected, forgotten, or misunderstood—movies that stand outside the canon, inviting surprising and bold analysis of the more unexplored regions of film history. It makes for a pair of collections needing no justification beyond the heady pleasures of everything from a reconsideration of Angelina Jolie’s By The Sea to a rollicking interview with John Waters. [Alex McLevy]

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