Yes, of course readable and even great fiction is still being written - for readers of all genders, ages and colors (in other words, everyone). And, for certain, it makes for wonderful gifts during the holiday season.
But a couple of us noticed something wildly unusual going on in the world of books in the past few months when the seasonal entries began to fly - a sudden tidal wave of books about American pop culture, a barely fathomable inundation of books about movies, comics and, especially, rock 'n' roll, including what seems the memoirs of every thundering rock guitarist whose way of wielding his ax ever made him a pop god.
So we got together to pick out a sampler of the amazing variety of movie, comic and pop music books available. Some are biographies and autobiographies erupting with narrative; some are histories that give you background on the last few months of front pages, megaplex offerings and the latest discs and downloads; and some are coffee table extravaganzas to gawk at slowly in the company of family members and others you might want to gawk with.
So here is our list of some of the most surprising giftable books this holiday season:
What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting by Marc Norman (Harmony, 553 pages, $27). So what on earth were the writers getting at with the strike? Even if you know all the current issues and implications for the future of entertainment in America, you don't begin to know nearly enough until you read this irreplaceable book by Marc Norman, Oscar-winning screenwriter and co-producer of "Shakespeare in Love." This is, without question, the best treatment of the subject since Richard Corliss' "Talking Pictures" in 1974.
And that makes it a classic book about movies.
It isn't just wonderful anecdotal stories about the chaos of writing movie classics like "Casablanca." Here is Norman on the writers' strike of 1988: "Screen and television writers didn't all live high on the hog; most of them had mortgages and worked from paycheck to paycheck. The strike collapsed amid a storm of fingerpointing and the guild settled for essentially the same unfavorable terms it had been offered months earlier."
Conversations with Woody Allen by Eric Lax (Knopf, 388 pages, $30). Woody Allen loves to talk about his movies. There's a catch, though. He only does so at suitable length when he's talking to someone who knows him and his movies cold. No one fits that description better at the moment than his biographer Eric Lax. You want candor? Try this from Page 185 on one of his recent misfired comedies "Scoop": "When I finished 'Scoop' I thought to myself, 'What a nuisance. I'm wasting my time with this little comedy and I could be doing another piece of work like 'Match Point' - another meaty thing. Why am I wasting my time with this?' Now I wish I had come to this conclusion 25 years ago but I didn't."
The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History by Gregory Paul Williams (BL Press Inc., 404 pages, $49.95). This is literally the story of Hollywood, the place. On the second page there's a 19th century photo of the Cahuenga Valley, where today's Melrose and Normandie avenues are (including Mount Lee, later the home of the Hollywood sign). And then, at the close on Page 386 are pictures of the 2003 demolition of the Fox Television Center to create a school. In between is a terrific combination of text and lavish photography about everything that took place in the geographical area called "Hollywood" from the era when it belonged to the weeds and the snakes. Sample from Page 262: Bob Hope eating at the Brown Derby, Red Skelton at the Derby and Broderick Crawford signing autographs on Hollywood Boulevard. The book has already won awards, deservedly.
Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture by Peter Kobel and the Library of Congress, foreword by Martin Scorsese, introduction by Kevin Brownlow (Little Brown, 300 pages, $45). Anyone who lets this book just sit on a coffee table without suitable gawking would be making an enormous mistake. That's why it comes with introductions from Scorsese, the leading film scholar among great moviemakers, and Brownlow, the leading historian of silent film. Sure, sure, you know all about Chaplin, Keaton, Griffith and John Barrymore. But are you ready for Baby Peggy? Richard Barthelmess? Ivan Mosjoukine? Asta Nielsen (Europe's first female movie star)? The photos are rare and often spectacular, the text terrific.
Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King by Foster Hirsch (Knopf, 573 pages, $35). The number of people who will tell you Otto Preminger stories - usually privately - is immense. Granted most of the actresses, for instance, he famously had affairs with or screamed at - or both - are as dead as he is, but old violently tempestuous Otto is still cherished for being as colorful a self-publicist as any moviemaker of the last 60 years, right up there with Hitchcock and Cecil B. DeMille in that regard (and, in his personal life, infinitely more interesting). He made a few great films in his time ("Laura," "Anatomy of a Murder") but even when he didn't, the man who had an illegitimate son with Gypsy Rose Lee had a life that could have been turned into at least two years worth of a prime-time soap opera. Very readable - and authoritative - Hollywood biography.
501 Movie Directors edited by Steven Jay Schneider (Barrons, 640 pages, $30); 501 Movie Stars edited by Steven Jay Schneider (Barrons, 640 pages, $30). These are from the people who previously put together the book "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" - a somewhat ominous title but a nifty book about movies if ever there was one. Add these two books to it and you've got an awfully good library for people whose regular existence depends on trips to the video store, mailings from Netflix and many long weekly visits to Turner Classic Movies, HBO, Showtime, Starz, Encore and the Movie Channel. Both of these mammoth reference books are full of names well off the beaten path along with the usual and not-so-usual suspects.
The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger (Knopf, 587 pages, $35). So let's say you wanted to know just how DID Lana Turner become a movie star? Or Clark Gable? Or Humphrey Bogart? Or the famous '40s Bettys (Hutton and Grable)? Here is your book, one of best books ever on the actual process by which Hollywood movie stars were invented and preserved against all the vagaries of a hostile world, including their own natures and personalities. Basinger is one of America's leading film scholars. The best news is that she's also one of our best writers about movies. The two things don't necessarily go together.
Spider-Man: The Icon by Steve Saffel, foreword by Stan Lee (Titan Books, 320 pages, $49.95). "Lavishly illustrated" is a notable understatement about this coffee-table extravaganza about everything you could ever want to know about the infinitely fallible and vulnerable comic book superhero who became a zillion-dollar fixture of American movies, courtesy of Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire and friends. Raffel calls his book "a walk through the legend of the Amazing Spider-Man as he's been seen by the public for 45 years and counting." An entertaining and dazzling walk it is.
The Marvel Vault: A Museum- in-a-Book by Roy Thomas and Peter Sanderson (Running Press, 192 pages, $49.95). Now that Marvel is a force in the movie world along with comic books, this multimedia fiesta may be the ultimate Marvel collectible, full of such items as perfect facsimiles of 1941-42 sketches of Sub-Mariner. And facsimiles of postcards comic book artist Bill Everett sent to his daughter at camp in New Hampshire, not to mention Stan Lee's typewritten 1961 synopsis of the Fantastic Four and simulations of the office passes needed by all Marvel comics visitors in 1982. Paradise for Marvel Comic geeks and pretty cool for almost anyone else too.