The other day, looking for books to buy as Christmas presents, I went strolling along Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road in London. There are huge biblio-emporia here - Borders, Waterstone's, Blackwell's, Foyles - covering thousands of square feet, offering big discounts on prominent titles, and staffed by friendly and sometimes knowledgeable men and women. Yet, for all the deft displays, the cheerily laid- out tables and the handwritten recommendations, what was striking was the sameness of the titles. Freakonomics, Smash Hits annuals, biographies of 18th-century courtesans, novels by long-established writers: everywhere a dulling homogeneity.
Where, I wondered, were copies of the really great books that emerged in 2006? Books such as Andrew Kötting's In the Wake of a Deadad (University College for the Creative Arts), a 440-page meditation on death as charming and funny as it is pensive and unsettling. Deadad chronicles the author's creation of a huge blow-up version of his father that he lugs as far as Mexico, where the annual Day of the Dead celebrations are taking place. An extraordinary montage sequence shows images from his father's belatedly discovered porn collection with the faces of its rutting stars replaced by that of Kötting himself. The book's playfulness subverts the sobriety of the conventional father-son memoir and forces us to reconsider our notion of what is an appropriate tribute.
Equally fascinating is Ilf and Petrov's Ameri-can Road Trip (Cabinet), a travelogue originally commissioned and published in the mid-1930s by the Soviet magazine Ogonek. The writers, couching their satiric observations in less rowdy language than another eastern-bloc observer, Borat, cruise along the freeways and note that: "Roads like this are laid out with a specific goal: to show nature to travellers, to show it so that they don't have to scramble around on the cliffs in search of a convenient observation point, so that they can get the entire required quantity of emotions without ever leaving their automobiles."
The book, rescued from Ogonek's archives by an enterprising academic called Erika Wolf, is co-published by Princeton Architectural Press, the most consistently interesting university imprint operating today. Unlike its British university-press equivalents, it produces beautifully designed and printed books that are as attractive to look at as they are to read. It makes a point of commissioning smart intellectuals, both inside and outside of the academy, who can write about emergent topics and complex ideas for general audiences. Adopting an elastic notion of architecture that encompasses philosophy, graphic design and urban studies, its recent roster includes books on the damage wreaked by Hurricane Katrina and Rebecca Lepkoff's beautiful photographs of New York's Lower East Side in the 1940s. Best of all is Ghostly Ruins, Harry Skrdla's bewitching exploration of abandoned Americana - penitentiary centres, amusement parks, aristocratic mansions - that evokes a country far more crepuscular and haunted than might be imagined from looking at any mainstream coverage.
Closer to home, a terrific source of off-kilter, engaging pamphlets and volumes is the London-based Book Works. Over the past 20 years, it has published early works by artists such as David Shrigley, Cornelia Parker and the Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller. A recent oddity is Siôn Parkinson's Head in the Railings, which features photographs of the author trying to squeeze himself into all manner of unlikely places: a toilet bowl, a kitchen sink, a postbox. One picture shows him, or at least his arms, sticking out of a public waste bin. In these funny, bewildering shots, Parkinson becomes an anti-Houdini, wriggling into rather than out of objects. His subdued captions evoke the sadness of someone wanting to disappear into architecture.
A very different Book Works title is Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan's Alien Invaders: a guide to non-native species of the Britisher Isles. A small hardback in the style of the Observer guides that used to be very popular, it is an elegantly illustrated mixture of fact and myth about foreign creatures and their impact on indigenous flora and fauna.
It's also a tart and pleasingly oblique commentary on the alarmist discourse surrounding contemporary immigration. Like all the books I have mentioned, it is delightful to handle, wears its learning lightly, and is as much artefact as product. Would that you could find a copy in most British bookstores.