Books That Look Cool — 2020 Edition

Fake Love Letters, Hiking Chernobyl, Godlis Streets + More.

Strange times call for strong medicine, and one of our preferred salves is a big, beautiful book.

Support independent publishers and your local bookstore by ordering one of our favorites from 2020 (or maybe just go for it and order all of them).


Photographer Brian Kelly’s big yellow book is essential for park system fans and armchair historians. More than anything, it’s a visual history of how the National Park Service presented itself to a changing America, especially through instantly-recognizable typography that marks each era of its (and our) history.

The 99% Invisible City

Subtitled “A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design,” this is a must for fans of Roman Mars and the 99% Invisible podcast. The art and mapwork inside is clever, as are the short, engaging histories behind municipal flags, misplaced islands, inflatable mascots at car dealerships, and more.

Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking

A celebration of prop designer Annie Atkins and her meticulously-crafted movie ephemera. But don’t take our word for it, take Jeff Goldblum’s: “Annie makes the unreal seem hyperreal, and the real more supremely alive and utterly magical.”

Accidentally Wes Anderson

We’ve been following this epically comforting Instagram for years, but a new book gives the found-in-the-wild Wes Anderson aesthetic a welcome glossy treatment. These places are absolutely real, and you will absolutely want to visit them (once we can visit places again, of course).

Reprinted Matter

Karel Martens is at the intersection of so many disciplines … experimental artist, book designer, coin designer(!), professor, printmaker … pretty much anything that’s cool. Plus, the binding alone on this book is worth the price.

Batman: The Animated Series: The Phantom City Creative Collection

For fans of the seminal 90s series (and Kevin Conroy’s definitive voicework), as well as fans of animation history in general, this is a real treat. Artist Justin Erickson’s poster collection mixes and mashes the distinctive deco lines of the show with all kinds of other genres and illustrative styles.

The California Field Atlas

Obi Kaufmann’s stunning atlas weaves together his lyrical prose and artwork for a travel-sized bible to California’s (currently besieged) natural landscape. He’s a true Renaissance character, and his books make you wonder how one person can be this talented. Also recommended: The Forests of California.

Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide

Darmon Richter was a tour guide at the site who also took slightly illegal hikes further into the Exclusion Zone. His photo documentation of Chernobyl (which is a lot bigger than people realize, with separate villages, ghost towns, forests and massive monuments) is fascinating.

Godlis Streets

There are about a million superb photo collections that capture the streets of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. This is something special though, showcasing David Godlis’ savvy eye and sense of humor applied to a city that needs and deserves both (then and now).

Hotels of Pyongyang

So many pictures we see of North Korea focus on its military, border, or leader. The title may sound obscure, but James Scullin and Nicole Reed’s photography project is the perfect example of how capturing a country’s most functional buildings and interiors spaces can the “little truths” that are all around us.

Hi-Fi: The History of High-End Audio Design

Music people love audio equipment … expensive speakers, record players, stereo systems, you name it. The only thing they love more is showing you their high-end gear, and we’re speaking as guilty audiophiles. Phaidon’s exquisite visual history of audio equipment is so, so nice, and it will definitely make you want to go out and spend money.

The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black

Horror/fantasy fans have to appreciate the sheer ingenuity of this experiment. Two books in one: a fictional biography of an 1800’s Philadelphia doctor who theorizes that humans are descended from mythological creatures, then his exquisitely-illustrated encyclopedia of said creatures. Detailed, deranged, macabre, brilliant.



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