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'Case for Books,' 'Looking for Calvin and Hobbes'

THE CASE FOR BOOKS: Past, Present, and Future, by Robert Darnton. PublicAffairs, 210 pp., $23.95.

It's all a bad dream. You wake up in a strange world with no books, no paper, only screens. The monitors, like the fabled red shoes, cannot be turned off. Book historian Robert Darnton to the rescue: Blam! Take that, Google, you bloodsucking monopoly! You fiend! Ker-pow!

Down go librarians who hope to save space by throwing away newspapers and even books, relying on not-so-reliable microfilm. Darnton laughs in the face of those who claim the book is dead. One million new titles, he writes, are published each year! (Sigh. My hero!)

Darnton is as serious as I am silly. He builds a case for a future collaboration between books and the Internet. He banishes the nightmare, if only for a while:

"Consider the book. It has extraordinary staying power. . . . It does not need to be upgraded or downloaded, accessed or booted, plugged into circuits or extracted from webs. Its design makes it a delight to the eye. Its shape makes it a pleasure to hold in the hand. And its handiness has made it the basic tool of learning for thousands of years."

LOOKING FOR CALVIN AND HOBBES: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip, by Nevin Martell. Continuum, 256 pp., $24.95.

This story of Nevin Martell's search for the elusive Bill Watterson, the J.D. Salinger of the cartoon world, is so richly infused with the genuine innocence and affection and humor of "Calvin and Hobbes," it doesn't even matter that the author never meets his subject. Watterson has never allowed the licensing of his work - no merchandise, no TV, no movies. He wrote a "manifesto against celebrity": "People love to have you, and then they use you up and there's nothing left."

Martell wrote Watterson, who disappeared from public life after he stopped writing the strip in 1995, but never heard back. Discouraged but determined, he interviewed friends and editors, visited Watterson's childhood home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, studied the influence of "Peanuts," "Krazy Kat," "Pogo" and "Winnie the Pooh," and pondered the effect of "Calvin and Hobbes" on his own life. Is this a definitive biography? No. But it's in many ways better and truer to the spirit of Watterson's creation.

THE SNOW TOURIST: A Search for the World's Purest, Deepest Snowfall, by Charlie English. Counterpoint, 272 pp., $15.95 paper.

Charlie English grew up in northern England. A few weeks before his father killed himself, he gave Charlie and his brother "copies of a photograph of himself as a young man on skis in an Austrian resort, framed by a bank of spring snow." With this photo lodged in his memory, English begins a 'round-the-world odyssey in search of deep snow.

He begins in the Canadian city of Iqaluit, where the average annual snowfall is 6 1/2 feet. He visits Jericho, Vt., home of the late Wilson Bentley, author of the definitive visual catalog of snowflakes. He goes to the Swiss Alps, learns about avalanches and studies snow in paintings (his favorite is Bruegel's "The Hunters in the Snow").

"We resemble those crystals," he writes of our relationship to snow. "Like them, we are made mostly of water. When we die, the water in us will find its way to the sea, where in time it will be lifted up by the sun, to fall again as snow."

ON THIN ICE: The Changing World of the Polar Bear, by Richard Ellis. Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pp., $28.95.

Richard Ellis begins "On Thin Ice" with a look at polar bears in ancient Scandinavian texts, in expedition logs from the 1800s, in literature, mythology and art. The ice bear is fixed in our understanding of the implications of climate change; we envision cities submerged, glaciers calving and polar bears swimming until they drown, unable to find vestiges of their habitat.

Through Ellis' eyes, the ice bear becomes more than a sacrificial symbol. "I wanted to pay homage to a wild spirit," he writes, "and I wanted to correct the misconceptions that surrounded it. . . . The great bear, dominant over its environment as no other wild creature ever was before or since, now finds itself threatened by the careless and uncaring predator that has - usually at the expense of the natural world - become the only creature in history that can drive other species to extinction and modify the earth to suit his needs."

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