The end of the century can’t get here soon enough for readers with limited shelf space. Bookstore tables are piled high with oversize tomes definitively surveying the past hundred, if not thousand, years: Letters of the Century, ESPN SportsCentury. From a Time Inc. sister magazine comes LIFE: Our Century in Pictures; from a highly respected national newspaper there’s The New York Times Century of Business and The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.
Read all of them if you’ve got time on your hands, by all means, but if you don’t, two volumes— as different from each other as David and Goliath —may be all you need to know everything you need to know: Century, a grand and grandiose collection of more than 1,000 photographs documenting a hundred years of world history as seen through the eyes of photojournalists; and The Look of the Century, a compact, tightly edited dictionary of a hundred years of man-made style and design in everything from toothbrushes to baby carriages. Taken together, the pair constitutes a crash course in everything our 20th-century forebears were capable of creating when they put their creative minds to it, and what could, and did, befall them when sometimes they did not.
Of course, to take them together, you’d need a forklift. Century alone fills 1,120 pages, is almost four inches thick, and weighs 13 pounds. (The book comes with its own plastic carrying handle just to get the thing home.) The project is edited by Bruce Bernard, a veteran British magazine photo editor whose own author picture is, Englishly, not a photo at all but a portrait of himself painted by Lucian Freud, and whose prose tends toward the twitty. (”Those over a certain age might deduce correctly that when very young I much enjoyed the great British pocket magazine Lilliput,” he pip-pips.) But the sheer colossal scope of the assembled stills is decisive proof that the 19th-century invention of photography, refined and advanced in the 20th century beyond imagining, has profoundly and forever changed human comprehension of the physical world, and self-knowledge as well.