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COFFEETABLE BOOKS BRING YOU THE WORLD

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For less than the cost of a night at an inexpensive hotel, a coffeetable book can transport the traveler on your holiday gift list, again and again, to faraway places. The lush photographs and evocative text that make browsing through these oversize volumes such a sensuous experience help make them the kind of gift that can be savored repeatedly.

Here's a sampling of the season's best fare:For a gallivanting look at planet Earth's diversity, it's hard to beat National Geographic: The Photographs (by Leah Bendavid-Val, National Geographic, $50). The striking cover portrait on this latest collection of National Geographic pictures sums up the genre made famous by the magazine: Here is a wide-eyed look at a still-surprising world. More than 200 stunning images span the globe, transporting viewers to deep caves, colorful coral reefs and searing deserts. We watch an explorer parachute from a balloon 20 miles above the ground, Berber tribesmen illumined by rifle blasts in a fantasia of smoke and dust, and sea turtles paddling through cobalt seas. But it's more than a gallery - it's five galleries, with sections devoted to the land, underwater, science, the United States and the world.

The book also affords readers a glimpse into the creative forces that propel photographer Louis Psihoyos through an assignment to illustrate an amorphous and rather abstract subject - sleep. And it examines the techniques Jim Brandenburg employed to document life among a pack of white wolves. We also get to look over the shoulder of master photographer William Albert Allard as he rides with American cowboys.

All in all, it's a look at our world, a vision as crackling with energy as the many photographs of lightning blazing across its pages.

These striking images from the pages of National Geographic may have helped inspire Traditional Peoples Today: Continuity and Change in the Modern World (Edited by Goran Burenhult, HarperSanFrancisco, $40), a visual tour of the last survivors of a more ancient order. Splendid photographs and encyclopedia-style text conduct this tour of tribal groups such as the Yanomami and the Aborigine, the Pygmies and the Bushmen, and of truly obscure peoples such as the Naga of Assam (in India) and the Ona, the now-extinct inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego. These are the endangered species of the human race.

An unearthly sight that provokes an almost spiritual response in many viewers is Aurora: The Mysterious Northern Lights (by Candace Savage, Sierra Club Books, $25). These eerie, sci-fi ribbons of pulsating color fill northern skies from time to time and have inspired many a legend among the peoples of the north. Here the mysterious glow is captured in all its magical glory (and fully explained). The text also delves into the legends behind the lights and the cold, hard facts behind the seasonal display.

If it's Peter Mayle, it must be Provence (by Peter Mayle, with photographs by Jason Hawkes, Random House, $35). Mayle has done more than any other mortal to popularize Provence, the French province that is his adopted home and the subject of several of his best-selling books. Now he's at it again, this time in the company of high-flying photographer Jason Hawkes. This particular match seems an odd combination. The photographs - nearly all aerials - are lovely indeed, but the distant views keep the earthy pleasures of Provence at arm's length. But Mayle's text, full of delicious details, affably guides the way on this trip through wild coastlines, geometrically arranged fields, stony hilltop villages and the odd industrial scene.

For a more sensual glimpse at the region, The Most Beautiful Villages of Provence (by Michael Jacobs and Hugh Palmer, Thames and Hudson, $40) provides the lyrical images that show us what Mayle has been celebrating these last few years. There are luscious pictures of flower-framed towns, gorgeous views of stone villages draped across hillsides, and a shot of burly, bare-chested boules players.

Lots of tourists have been traipsing around Provence of late, looking for the villages Mayle writes about and the place where he lives. This book proves that's a rather feeble idea - the region is full of picture-perfect villages that merit discovery - whether or not Mayle has ever been there.

Sometimes, collections of photographs from another era make you long for a time machine. The good old days have a rosy glow, especially through the faint haze of time-faded photographs.

Venice, in particular, looks far more intriguing 100 years ago than it does now. Venice in Old Photographs: 1841-1920 (by Dorothea Ritter, Bulfinch, $35, 202 pp.) displays the canal-crossed city with a wide range of atmospheric subjects: florid architecture, moody cathedrals, masked carnival-goers, bizarrely outfitted undertakers, and countless shots of gondolas cruising the canals. Many of the images are quite artful.

Ireland in Old Photographs (by Sean Sexton, Bulfinch, $35, 205 pp.), by comparison, looks rather severe - particularly the crudely done images of grizzled workers, stiff-looking aristocrats, stony villages and grimly poor families. Relief comes in the form of serene photographs of country estates and rusticating royalty.

Photographs old and new are used to a different end in Remembering Main Street: An American Album (by Pat Ross, Viking Studio Books, $29.95, 225 pp.). This picture-filled volume chronicles the main streets of 10 quintessentially American small towns, those whose character has been preserved by civic effort or just plain chance. These through-the-years glimpses show the evolution of Main Streets and look in on local institutions such as barber shops, Memorial Day parades and front-porch living. Two of the featured towns are nearby - Wickford, R.I., and Great Barrington, Mass.

Finally, for something truly American, there's Yosemite and the High Sierra: Ansel Adams (edited by Andrea G. Stillman, Little, Brown and Company, $50). Yosemite and Ansel Adams are nearly synonymous. When you think of Half Dome, for example, the image that springs to mind may well be one of Adams' razor-sharp, impeccably composed black-and-white photographs. This volume displays some of his best from California's high country and sets them alongside a collection of the photographer's writings about the rocks and mountains that provided him with so many memorable pictures.