It's terrible. It's 1,360 pages of journalistic kitsch. It's news posing as history posing as news. But you can't keep your hands off it.
Nobody can. Already the French and German editions of "Chronicle of the 20th Century" have sold 2.2 million copies. A quarter-million of the tombstone-size books have been printed in this country -- to sell at $49.95 -- with another printing coming right up.
And all this before the American publication date last week.
What it is is a digest of our century, a page per month, with photos and little news articles, mostly rewritten from the New York Times, the headlines composed by editor in chief Clifton Daniel. For instance, on the page for June 1903 we read, "Henry Ford forms an auto company." The story, dated June 16, goes, "Henry Ford, the engineer who has been tinkering for years with horseless carriages, formed his own automobile company in Detroit, Mich., today ... "
Other top stories: "Negro killed; mob rules," about a lynch mob in Wilmington, Del.; "Serbian King and Queen assassinated"; and a little item headed "Mussolini watched."
This last, dated June 19, notes that "a young Italian teacher named Benito Mussolini was placed under investigation today by the police in Bern, Switzerland ... Swiss police say that Mussolini, the son of a socialist blacksmith, has been spending time with revolutionary friends and studying the works of Karl Marx."
As you see, the book is a monument to hindsight. Looking back upon events as from some height of superior wisdom, it tries to show the grand flow of history in the daily droplets of information that make up news. In fact, precisely because it artificially magnifies these unassuming little items, it trivializes everything it touches.
"The French physicist Henri Becquerel has identified the source of the mysterious radiation he detected in a mineral sample as electrons from atoms of the element uranium," reads a 1901 item, winking wisely at us. Throughout, civil rights and women's rights and other major modern-day concerns are emphasized. Mutiny on the Russian battleship Potemkin gets a degree of attention it surely didn't get at the time.
It's like the old story about the aspiring playwright who had a character, an obstetrician returning home from an emergency call, rush onstage and exclaim, "It was a boy! And the baby's name was ... Victor Hugo!"
Why is this book so irritating? Maybe it's the smug assumption that today we know, finally and forever, what is important. The self-assurance fades, of course, as the chronicle creeps up on the present. It seems less and less omniscient and more like a conventional end-of-the-year news review.
And the more you read, the more you realize that it is all surface. The book itself is three inches thick, but the content is absolutely devoid of depth. Readers are expected to supply context and historical significance for themselves.
In 1906 a Bayer advertisement, one of the 3,700 illustrations in the book, promotes "Heroin, the sedative for coughs." It helps to know that heroin was the methadone of its time, hailed as the solution to widespread morphine addiction. Otherwise, the item would be merely baffling.
But good heavens, look at all this stuff. "Wrights fly heavier-than-air plane." "Dreyfus vindicated." Norman Rockwell's first Saturday Evening Post cover (May 20, 1916). "Stalin speech seeks to justify purges." "Babe Ruth making more than Hoover."
You read on. You can't help it. From 1934: "In a machine-gun bloodbath, Gen. Augusto Sandino, his brother and two aides were slain last night by National Guardsmen at the Managua, Nicaragua, airfield." The photo of Sandino has this caption: "a future martyr?"
Fascinating. Amelia Earhart lost at sea. James Weldon Johnson dies. The minimum wage is set at 40 cents an hour. Trotsky is murdered. Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier. The Mau Mau uprising. Color TV. Kefauver. Appalachin. Laika. The Rolling Stones. Hot pants ...
Hey, here's "Gandhi leads Salt March." Wyatt Earp died in 1929, did you know that? How about: "Feb. 16, 1937: A patent on a versatile new plastic called nylon was obtained today by E.I. du Pont ..."
Oooh. Look. "Dietrich discovered in 'The Blue Angel.' " "Sharkey's foul makes Schmeling champ." Lindbergh's baby kidnaped ... Nazi rally at Nuremberg ... W.C. Fields dies ... Nureyev defects ... Sid Vicious kills girlfriend ... Wait. Listen to this. Wait ...