AUSTIN, Texas -- Fellow procrastinators of the world, unite! Now is the time to begin thinking about Christmas shopping. We still have a few days left, so there's no rush for those who have been known to do it all on Christmas morning at the Jiffy Mart (everyone appreciates a nice can of WD-40).

For those who consider it wussy to begin shopping before the 24th, here's the annual Christmas book list -- the best one-stop shopping in town, items to suit all ages and personalities.

We prefer, of course, to shop at independent bookstores, but if a chain store is all that's available, it will do. Though there are no guarantees on the quality of the Christmas help: I once heard a woman ask for "The Odyssey" by Homer, to which the high-school honey hired for the holidays replied, "Uh, Homer Who?"

A fun book for almost anyone on you list is "Seabiscuit, An American Legend" by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House, $24.95). Unless you're a horse person, you probably think you don't want to read the biography of a racehorse, but you do want to read this one. It's a love of a book about a love of a horse.

Seabiscuit was the best-known athlete in America back in the late '30s, a homely, Western horse with a strong resemblance to a cinderblock and a gait that looked as though adjustments to the carburetor were needed. After a tough start in life, Seabiscuit wound up with an owner, jockey and trainer who had all come up the hard way themselves.

The four of them campaigned across the country and took on the great racing swells of the East with their gorgeous, high-bred stock -- and Seabiscuit beat them all, culminating in what is considered the greatest match-race of all time against the superb War Admiral. Then he was injured, made a comeback -- oh, it's just a wonderful story, and you'll wind up cheering him on as madly as people did back then.

On the topics du jour, there's excellent overall background in "Islam and the West" by Bernard Lewis (published in 1993, Oxford University Press). It's a series of essays, which makes it easier to read one at a time. Lewis has tremendous erudition and scholarship. But there is a lively quarrel among Arabists, and one should also read from the other side. The excellent Arabist Edward Said revised "Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World" in 1997, and it was published by Vintage Books. This is also a remarkably knowledgeable look at how our perceptions of Islam are shaped. Between the two, you'll be well-informed.

It seems to me Said might be the better pick if only because we've been getting an awful lot of "what wrong with them?" lately, and very little about how our policies and attitudes have helped produce what President Bush likes to call "the war against Evil."

On the domestic front, Seymour Melman's "After Capitalism: From Managerialism to Workplace Democracy" (Alfred A. Knopf, $35) is a little heavy on the sociology -- not a fast read, but chock full of good information and good ideas. Joan Didion's new collection of essays, "Political Fictions" (Knopf, $25), applies one of our country's most observant and fastidious minds to one of its least appetizing aspects. If I could write political commentary that holds up this well over time, I'd die happy.

"Carry Me Home, Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution" by Diane McWhorter is an absorbing, complex study of that city in its worst days. It is part history, part investigative journalism and part memoir -- McWhorter being from prominent white Birmingham family.

Couple of Texas guys and a gal having fun: "The Final Country" by James Crumley (Warner Books, $24.95). Crumley, master of the hard-boiled private-eye-cum-Texas-lunacy, brings back his man Milo Milodrogovitch in a caper of such splendid complexity you might think it was all hopelessly improbable -- unless, of course, you're a Texan and then recognize every nutcase in the book.

For anyone interested in acting, or just a funny book, Marco Perella's "Adventures of a No Name Actor" (Bloomsbury, $24.95) is priceless. Perella makes a living as an actor in Texas, an achievement calling for dedication, talent and the ability to handle absolutely anything with a straight face. He's appeared in some of the worst movies of our time and is often minced, diced and chopped in the name of his art. The wonderful thing about Perella is that he perseveres no matter how improbable the role, trying to make (SET ITAL) his (END ITAL) sleazoid, psychotic killer the best sleazoid, psychotic killer ever.

Sarah Bird's "The Yokota Officers Club" (Knopf, $23) is a beautifully written account of a young woman returning to her military family after a year at college. Bird just keeps getting better. (All three Texas writers are friends of mine, but I'm recommending them because I enjoyed the books.)

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