Best art books of 2009: From Darwin to Warhol, Van Gogh to Blake, these fabulous tomes chart the progression of life itself

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How big do stockings run? I ask only because this year's must-have Christmas art book is XXL and then some: the magnificent, six-volume Vincent van Gogh: The Letters (Thames & Hudson, £325). Yes, I know it's a lot of money in mid-recession. But this scholarly collection of Vincent's jottings is a once-in-a-lifetime event – part diary, part immaculately reproduced sketchbook, and at least 40 years' worth of reading for any real van Gogh devotee. That's £8 a year, or 15p a week. You know it makes sense.

For those art Grinches, Phaidon's Painting Today is both less and more than it sounds – cheaper (£45 for 448 handsomely hardbound pages), but very much cleverer. Tony Godfrey's whip through contemporaneity is an A to Z of the here and now just as it turns into the there and then. His last chapter, "Painting Tomorrow", may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it is the most sensible shot at art futurology I have seen. Godfrey's essays would sit well with The Contemporary Art Book by Charlotte Bonham-Carter and David Hodge (Goodman, £30) – less rarified, maybe, but a useful artist-by-artist guide to the past 40 years even so.

If you're more interested in where we're coming from than where we're going, then Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts (Yale, £40) is the book for you. Darwin's evolutionary tree-of-life was sketched before it was written, its maker's thinking both influenced by and hugely influential on the art of his day: critics such as Ruskin had to rethink the whole idea of beauty in a world according to Darwin. From this redefinition descends contemporary art's fascination with science and in particular with human biology, a subject neatly summed up in Sally O'Reilly's The Body in Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, £9.95). Everything from the way Allan Kaprow made us walk around happenings to the way Marc Quinn faces us with the imperfections of the flesh comes from a new way of seeing the body, a change wrought by Darwin in the 1860s and still current today.

The most obvious example of this is the changing portrayal of women, the subject of a ' fascinating study, Forbidden Fruit: A History of Women and Books in Art, by Christiane Inmann (Prestel, £19.99). Men have always been frightened of clever gals. As a result, and since at least 2000 BC, pictures of women with books have been objects of anxiety for the male of the species. They have also been oddly plentiful – witness Bronzino's portrait of Laura Battiferri as a big-nosed drag queen, or its painterly opposite, Reading, Berthe Morisot's paean to bluestockingry.

Morisot, you feel, would not have liked Stephen Bayley's Woman as Design (Octopus, £50), despite the prettily wire-embossed drawing on its cover. But what the hell, eh? It'll look good under the tree. The book's opening lines – "If women had been designed then what exactly was the brief? The breast – is there any more potent symbol?" – seem designed to bring low growls from the throats of feminists. Actually, Bayley's tracing of the history of bottoms and blondness from Jan van Eyck to the headlights of Fiat cars is never lascivious, seldom offensive and often clever.

Still, the last thing you need at Christmas is more fuel for a family row, so why not play it safe with books that charm? Artists' Studios (Black Dog, £24.95) is by MJ Long, the widow of Colin St John Wilson and herself a well-known architect. Among her commissions have been ateliers for Peter Blake, Frank Auerbach and RB Kitaj, and this book offers us a glimpse into their otherwise private world of work. (Not for nothing is there a peephole in its cover.) Kitaj's bookishness, Blake's marriages and Auerbach's mania for privacy had to be factored into the brief – meetings with the latter could be set up only from a phone box. Long's discreet book is less kiss-and-tell than draw-and-tell, but the results are beguiling nevertheless.

Endearing, too, is Photo Box (Thames & Hudson, £19.95), not least on account of its strange, fold-around cover. Roberto Koch breaks down his subject by theme – fashion, cities, etc – and then subdivides these alphabetically from Abbas to Zuckerman, with each of the 250 entries illustrated with a photograph. Koch's snapshots of the snappers are suitably snappy, his prose style being brisk but revealing.

The book most likely to succeed this Christmas, though, must be Andy Warhol: Treasures (Goodman, £30). Andy always had a fondness for tinsel, and this book indulges it to the full. Included in its 125 squishy-bound pages are sealed envelopes stuffed with presents – facsimile items from Warhol's famous "time capsules", aka boxes full of junk. There are sketches by Andy's own hand and a card from the soon-to-die Edie Sedgwick expressing her love for him. In terms of ooh-factor, this one is hard to beat. So get down to your bookshop, and have a Merry Christmas.

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