FOR all the budding ornithologists out there, it will be hard to beat the RSPB Handbook of Scottish Birds (Christopher Helm, £9.99) by Peter Holden and Stuart Housden as a stocking-filler this Christmas.
THERE can be no excuses this year for losing sight of the real meaning of Christmas, thanks to Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of Christianity (Allen Lane, £35). A real stocking-stretcher at almost 1,200 pages, it's awe-inspiring in its scholarship, but accessible in style – indeed, a compulsive read. You'd hardly think MacCulloch could have left anything significant unsaid if it weren't for Charles Freeman's A New History of Early Christianity (Yale, £25).
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LIFE is too short, and the world so vast, that even a Euromillions lottery win would leave you unable to reach its myriad corners in a lifetime. Readers may venture forth by proxy. This year's travel books (a better than usual crop), provide escape and, sometimes, inscape.
STIRRED BUT NOT SHAKEN BY KEITH FLOYD WITH JAMES STEEN (Sidgwick and Jackson, £18.99)
LYTTON Strachey's belief that biography should "shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses" is credited with beginning the art of modern biography, and in 2009, there seemed to be plenty of "exposés" going on, at least in the world of literary biography.
ANY year that sees the publication of a novel that one can unhesitatingly judge to be great, belonging to the same demanding but rewarding company as Proust, Conrad and Thomas Mann, is a good one.
TO launch our three-part round-up of the most engrossing reads of 2009, we asked our favourite writers for their festive gift advice
FOR ALL THE TEA IN CHINA Sarah Rose Hutchinson, £18.99
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