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BOOKED FOR THE HOLIDAYS
REMEDIAL STUDY FOR REPENTANT SLACKERS

The shame of it -- the shame.

Look. It isn't as if I didn't intend to pay full attention in Zoology 101. But it was an 8 a.m. class, after all, and there seemed to be an awful lot of Latinate talk about cells for that hour of the morning. And besides, there were a couple of distracting young women in the class who seemed preternaturally well-turned-out for such an hour. (If it's your intention to be stupid, you can always find an excuse.)

It all just continued my lifelong classroom tradition of paying far less attention in science class than I should have.

Now that I'm old enough to know better (that common malady of middle age), it looms as one of the bigger shames of a misspent youth. Ever since my mid-20s I've found science and the natural world to be fascinating. And boy do I ever know I'm not alone.

How could I have paid so little attention to it all when I was supposed to?

So here's a rare -- perhaps singular -- strategy for the similarly afflicted during gift-book season: understand fully that my ilk of shame-filled science delinquents (with our Cs, Ds and worse, to prove it) is an uncommonly large one.

And rejoice. Redemption of a sort exists -- redemption in huge, gorgeous, lavish books to be ogled on a coffee table or pored over in a dining room that hasn't yet been opened for family business.

Chief among them, I think, being Steve Bloom's astounding and staggeringly beautiful "Untamed" (Abrams, 424 pages, $55) in which the indefatigable wildlife photographer shows us sights that we of the science-deprived and sedentary classes will never see in the real world.

A Siberian tiger sprinting across the snow, for instance. Or a huge milling herd of zebras and wildebeests in Kenya. Or an Alaskan Brown Bear whose pursuit of an elusive salmon gives us a bone-chilling photographic look at what it means to lie on a rung underneath this mayhem machine on the food chain.

This huge book -- so apparently and deceptively ordinary in its "and then I photographed" Animal Planet intent -- is as ripping a collection of wildlife photography as you're likely to come across. Bloom isn't merely content to put the animals in his telephoto lens; he wants candids of nothing less than survival itself, no matter what Darwinian scrambles that entails.

In the case of a theme to which Bloom arrestingly returns again and again, it is clearly intraspecies territorial combat. For every pair of playful and lovable pandas lolling about in China's Sichuan province, there seem to be polar bears in Cape Churchill, Canada, playing their own deadly serious game of "King of the Castle." (For animals that big and that lethal, it is clearly no longer a game.) Bloom is a nonpareil visual dramatist of the theater of survival.

In this mammoth, coffee-table extravaganza, Bloom, bless him, restores all the wonderment at subjects that may somehow have been lost in a life of inattention and guilt. (Why wasn't THIS stuff in Zoology 101?)

Even more spectacularly remedial is the Smithsonian's "Human: The Definitive Visual Guide" (DK Publishing, 510 pages, $50), in which the venerable Washington institution gives us an amazing, illustrated at-a-glance full-color compendium of everything you'd know if you'd been more attentive in biology, anthropology and sociology too.

And when I say everything, I mean everything.

If Steve Bloom reacquaints you with the astonishments of our brother and sister creatures, the Smithsonian's massive picture book recaptures our own.

Without question, though, the most fascinating and creative lavishly illustrated guide to all things human is Alexander Tsiaras and Barry Werth's "The Architecture -- and Design -- of Man and Woman: The Marvel of the Human Body Revealed" (Doubleday, 256 pages, $50). These are astounding computer images for "The Infonomic Age" devoted to the idea that "the human body is a marvel of engineering."

Think of it as "The Fantastic Voyage" in a book -- but the real thing.

Along with the amazing sights, Werth himself informs us of such things as this: "Women have narrower shoulders and their arms are usually shorter, meaning they have less leverage in throwing. Similarly, their hips are wider (the result of a more open pelvis for childbearing) which increases the angle between the pelvis and the thighbone and makes it harder for them to raise their knees as high as men or push on the ground with as much force while running. On the other hand, lower hips and narrower shoulders create a lower center of gravity, making women's bodies more stable."

Now you know (and don't tell me you already did).

For those blissfully free of guilt, one of the most festive ways to celebrate gift season is "Sports Illustrated 50 Years: The Anniversary Book" (Sports Illustrated Books, 304 pages, $29.95).

Contained therein are: 1) Every cover in the magazine's history (including, yes, the swimsuit issues); 2) a full page devoted to the visual history of the sneaker 1954-2004; and 3) some of the best writing and photographic work from the magazine's first 50 years.

That last, in fact, may well shock those who never registered, over the decades, how every good both the writing and the photography have been in America's greatest sports journal of the past half century.

It is -- at surprisingly reasonable price -- a perfect specimen of the half-century of American sport during which it went from "the toy department of life" to the very basis of most of our defining metaphors.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com