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History : Past, Present, and That's About It, Really
By David Pitt

Here are some more coffee table books that'll make nifty Christmas gifts: Codes, Ciphers & Other Cryptic & Clandestine Communication (Black Dog & Leventhal, hardcover), by Fred B. Wrixon, is a comprehensive history of codes and code breaking, starting way back at the very beginning: four thousand years ago, when Egyptian scribes used special hieroglyphs in transcriptions of religious texts. Flash forward nearly five millennia, to 700 A.D.: now, the Arabic writing included some fairly sophisticated ciphering techniques (the word 'cipher,' Wrixon tells us, comes from the Arabic 'sifr,' meaning 'nothing'). Wrixon traces the evolution of cryptography in exquisite detail, leading us on a fascinating voyage through history -- did you know Mary, Queen of Scots' plans to seize the throne of England were foiled by some cutting-edge code breaking; that Napoleon suffered a catastrophic defeat due to someone's misreading a 'garbled cipher reply'? Vastly informative and educational.

Also vastly informative -- and, in places, downright moving -- is From the Front: The Story of War (National Geographic, hardcover), by Michael S. Sweeney. This collection of photographs taken by war correspondents, some of them dating as far back as the U.S. Civil War, is astonishing in its impact -- almost visceral, in fact. And Sweeney's text, which describes the history of modern warfare from the point of view of the men and women who report it, packs, in its own way, just as much punch as the pictures. It's a unique perspective on war -- Sweeney's not writing about the people who made the wars, so much as the people who watched them close-up -- and it's sure to be a welcome addition to any history buff's library.

So will Lost Subs (Da Capo, hardcover), by Spencer Dunmore. It chronicles the history of undersea vessels by telling us the stories of some subs that went down, and stayed down. Here's the CSS Hunley, the world's first true military submarine, which sank an enemy ship during the Civil War and then plunged to the bottom of Charleston Harbor, where it lay until it was salvaged, more than a century later. Here's the Resurgam, the first engine-powered sub, lost while under tow near Wales in 1880. Here's the Thetis, a brand-new Royal Navy T-class sub that sank, in 1939, during its first underwater test in Liverpool Bay; even though the water was only 150 feet deep, even though the sub's stern was actually sticking out of the water, ninety-nine of its 103 crew and passengers perished. Here are famous names: Squalus, Thresher, Kursk. Here are stark, haunting photos (a Japanese sub, on the seabed, looking for all the world like a beached whale lying on its back) and beautiful, beautiful paintings by such artists as Daniel Dowdey (check out his illustrations of the Hunley's last voyage) and Ken Marschall (best known for his incredibly moving paintings of the sunken Titanic). Combine all this with Dunmore's highly instructive text and you have, in a word, a remarkable book.

Sometimes you can tell a lot about a book by leafing through its index. In Search of America (Hyperion, hardcover), by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster, has in its index: advertising and marketing; Jimmy Cagney; eugenics; West Side Story; history textbooks; Steven Spielberg; teenagers; Monsanto; Buck Owens; Inherit the Wind; taxes; lobby groups; William Shatner; Jesse Jackson; Parker Brothers; and a lot more. This companion piece to the television series In Search of America, which explores "the great themes of American identity," is impressively broad in its scope, and evenhanded in its presentation (by which I mean it reports events, but does not pass judgment on them). It's an interesting idea, this thematic history of the U.S., and the authors carry it off well.

I Stand for Canada: The Story of the Maple Leaf Flag (Macfarlane Walter and Ross, hardcover), by Rick Archbold, tells the story of the Canadian flag. Although Canada didn't have an official flag until the mid-sixties (and only then after intense debates about its design), the maple leaf had already been the country's unofficial symbol for decades. It was familiar in the eighteenth century, was a moral-booster during World War One. But when Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson suggested, in 1964, that Canadians should have a flag of their very own -- until then, the British Union Jack was Canada's flag, too -- the maple leaf was an unexpectedly hard sell. It's an engrossing story, well told.

Canada: A People's History was a documentary television series produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. There are two books based on the series, both published in paperback by McClelland & Stewart and written by Don Gilmor and Pierre Turgeon (volume two also credits Achille Michaud as co-author). They're beautiful books, with full-color illustrations and sharp writing. The authors recount the history of the country from the perspective of the people who built it; it's a large-scale story told with attention to the small details. That's a good thing. History books can be dull, dry affairs, but these are exciting and memorable.

In August, 1943, the naval vessel PT 109 was hit by another ship; it sank, although most of its crew got off before it went under. One survivor was PT 109's commander, a 26-year-old lieutenant by the name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Sixty-odd years later, Dr. Robert Ballard, the man who's found a number of presumed-lost-forever wrecks (the Lusitania, the Bismarck, the Titanic), went looking for the sunken vessel. Collision with History: The Search for John F. Kennedy's PT 109 (National Geographic, hardcover) is the record of that quest. Written by Ballard with Michael Hamilton Morgan, and illustrated with photographs and paintings, it's a stirring, haunting story. I'm quite the fan of Bob Ballard, and I'm in awe of his dedication and his belief that wreck sites should be treated with respect (they are, after all, in a very real way gravesites). This is a genuinely moving book.

Editor's Note: This is one of a series on coffee table books as holiday gifts. Find more suggestions in our Columns.
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