Regardless of content, our libraries are usually sorted according to our books' covers—shelf size trumps the alphabet as an organizing principle, with coffee tablers and unwieldy textbooks mixing promiscuously together.
How much easier it is to appraise one's library and CD collection visually, and how much more liberating to shop on that basis alone—whatever looks coolest. Take the example of Taschen, the high-end German publisher usually prone to publishing very expensive smut. Its new Andr頤e Dienes, Marilyn ($200) could be the centerpiece not just of your library but of your entire living room. Measuring a whopping 16 by 20 inches, the packaging consists of a facsimile Kodak photographic paper box bearing the (reproduced) markings of the late pinup photographer who first took a lens to Norma Jean Mortensen in 1945. Inside the yellow box, which would look pretty impressive propped on any mantelpiece, are a 240-page hardcover with lots of photos (many in color); a 608-page softcover facsimile memoir with even more photos; and a brochure containing two dozen more magazine covers de Dienes photographed of the young model.
On the more academic side, Phaidon has published Spoon ($75) in a gorgeous undulating stainless-steel jacket. Measuring about 8 by 11 inches, it's a 448-page survey of current trends in contemporary design, so the packaging does indeed reflect the contents: 100 smart young designers, grouped into tens, with 1,000 illustrations and photos. The book has that must-browse aspect that makes it perfect for a coffee table, although anyone tempted to use it as a coaster will find that the wavy surface may topple a martini.
From its back catalog, check out Phaidon's 1998 Fresh Cream ($41.97), another designing tome, which comes packed inside an inflated pillow. (So if you sleep on it, can you learn what's inside?) Among Phaidon's photography titles, Norbert Schoerner's 2001 The Order of Things ($75) has a spine like no other: It's literally circular, a continuous cylindrical core around which the pages fan out. About 10 inches in diameter, the 176-page volume rests inside a translucent hatbox-sized container—not well-suited to a bookshelf, guaranteeing the round book will sit out for visitors to flip through.
On the more sordid side, Akashic Books' Suicide Casanova ($25) comes bound inside a black-plastic VHS case suggesting pornography. The "psychosexual thriller" by N.Y.C. novelist Arthur Nersesian concerns bad sex turned violent, S&M sessions turned worse, and all manner of sudden, sweaty couplings on cheaply carpeted floors. Literary merit aside, the packaging does suit the story of a guilt-ridden protagonist smitten with an adult-film star.
Thoroughly wholesome, The Art of Belly Dancing (Running Press, $5.95) is a pamphlet that comes complete with finger cymbals and adhesive jewels in a little oval canister (about three inches high). This well-disguised title wouldn't appear out of place inside your medicine cabinet or on your dressing table.
OVER BY THE STEREO, there are all kinds of neat-looking box sets that will complement your fancy new Harman Kardon system. New from Columbia/Legacy, Charlie Christian, The Genius of the Electric Guitar ($50) comes inside a cool little box mimicking the form of a vintage Gibson amplifier. The four-disc set is essential for anyone interested in jazz history, which was directly influenced by the tragically short-lived (1917-1945) artist and sideman to Benny Goodman.
Released last fall, the KISS Deluxe Limited Edition (Universal, $196) signals its comprehensiveness by arriving in a whole damn suitcase—complete with handle and latches—bearing five discs and a book. It's actually small enough to fit under your arm and could conceivably be repurposed for overnight travel—assuming you don't carry much more than a toothbrush and change of underwear.
New this year, Remember Shakti (Universal, $75) adorns its six-disc retrospective of the John McLaughlin jazz group with a real silk embroidered band, but it's still a box. Making more of an effort to stand out is the Rhino compilation Hot Rods & Custom Classics ($70), which houses four discs of car-themed '50s and '60s rock in a package recalling the model-car kits of youth—sure to inspire a certain glue-sniffing nostalgia among some buyers.