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Coffee-table books speak volumes about character--and the characters we want to be

Let's be honest: Most coffee-table books are good for about 10 minutes of actual reading time. Filled with dazzling ink-saturated images and inherently fluffy text, these tomes are always more interesting when viewed with others. If conversation lulls, nothing distracts more easily and showcases your astonishingly diverse interests better than a tabletop filled with big books on gardening, architecture, or travel. But why stop there? There are books devoted to tin toys, Diane Von Furstenberg's wrap dress, bodybuilding, and playing with your food. Somewhere there's a book that reflects your personality--or the personality you'd like people to think you have. Besides, what homo home would be complete without beautiful useless objects?

The best coffee-table books are often sleekly photographed without a lot of text getting in the way. Nowhere is this truer than the fabulous world of fashion photography, where one waif-like photo of Kate Moss stands in for reams of written discourse. Runway Madness (Chronicle Books, $25.95) adheres to this tradition, focusing on the photographs of Lucian Perkins rather than the text of Robin Givhan. Perkins, who previously won a Pulitzer Prize for turning his lens to the heady topic of poverty, spent several years photographing New York runway shows, and the photos collected here span the last decade.

Givhan's text is thankfully minimal, leaving Perkin's gorgeous color shots as the true star of the book. The captions (What model is that? Who designed that dominatrix tutu?) are relegated to a section at the book's end that provides thumbnail black-and-whites of each photo along with the important details. Page after page, nothing interferes with the pleasure of perusing the world of the beautiful.

Everyone is in this book. Perkins seemingly has snapped every superstar model of the last 10 years--Kristen McMenamy, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, and Veronica Webb, for starters. His novel trick, however, is capturing the ladies in various states of dishabille: Moss in a tank top downing champagne, Webb clowning around in curlers, Crawford lounging on the floor. Perkins also shoots the designers themselves: a frantic Isaac Mizrahi, an outrageous Betsey Johnson, an underdressed Todd Oldham, and a dapper Giorgio Armani.

Runway Madness gives everyone access to that star-laden world. It's big, fun, and super-stylish--all the things you want people to associate with you.

If your friends fancy themselves more erudite, you'll leave something else laying around. Try Legends (New World Library, $29.95), a collection of essays by women writing about women. With an introduction by Angelica Huston, the book, which also indulges in full-page photographs, profiles 50 famous females, from Gertrude Stein to Oprah Winfrey. The quirky, thoughtful pairings of writer to subject make the book worth viewing cover to cover.

The book features authors that are unabashedly passionate about their subjects. Sometimes these are expected, such as grand diva Jessye Norman writing about opera singer Marian Anderson ("If the planet Earth could sing, I think it would sound something like Marian Anderson"). Alice Walker writes about fellow author Zora Neale Hurston, a topic Walker has covered elsewhere. Here, however, Walker isn't writing as a literary critic, and her simple note that Hurston's seminal book Their Eyes Were Watching God speaks to her "as no novel, past or present, has ever done" is heartfelt and beautiful.

At times, the coupling of subject to author is a bit more surprising. Gloria Steinem--she of the Playboy-bunny-bashing classic feminism--waxes poetic about that icon of objectified female beauty and erstwhile Playboy bunny, Marilyn Monroe. Camille Paglia turns in a trademark fire-and-brimstone piece about Amelia Earhart, revealing a long-standing childhood passion for the aviatrix that culminated in trying on Earhart's battered leather jacket.

In good coffee-table fashion, Legends features stunning photographs. Some of the older photos are retouched stock, but the book takes pains to pick photos that haven't been seen before. There's also work from legendary photographers like Cecil Beaton (Colette, Gertrude Stein) and Alfred Stieglitz (Georgia O'Keeffe).

Your companions might get lost here, discovering new women to argue about and swoon over. Not to worry: Distract them with the glitzy Barbie Millicent Roberts (Pantheon Books, $30). Yes, Barbie has a full name. Photographed by noted toy photographer (who knew?) David Levinthal, these are the early, hot, haute-couture Barbie years, all done up with earrings, pearls, and other too-tiny accessories.

Introduced by Mattel in 1959, Barbie was always intended to be a high-fashion doll. Levinthal mercifully spares us the hideous '70s and '80s fashions--no bell bottoms or shoulder pads for Barbie--so what you find here is the best of the '60s, a high-water mark in clothing. Barbie in Balenciaga! Barbie in Dior! Barbie in something suspiciously close to Chanel! The outfits are the superstars, so the pages aren't cluttered up with a lot of Barbie townhomes and Jacuzzis. You do, however, get Barbie's super-miniature poodle in a "Lunch on the Terrace" tableau.

Barbie worked through an awful lot of hairstyles in the '60s: There's Swirl Barbie, Ponytail Barbie, oodles of brunette Barbies, and the unfortunately-named Bubble-Cut Barbie. A romp through the decade also reminds us that a girl can never, ever have too much blue eye shadow.

It's not necessary to be a Barbie fanatic to appreciate this book: Anyone with the slightest sense of camp will appreciate the small-scale oddity of it all.

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