Notes on History: 20th Century Year by Year: The Great Work of Time

A decade into the 21st century, I think the time is now apt to  contemplate the great work of Time, that is, the interpretation of the chronicle of human existence as a narrative. To illustrate this I’m going to pick up a book that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for almost the whole of the past ten years. The Twentieth Century was arguably the most eventful and therefore intriguing of all past centuries. I didn’t realise, until I happened on The 20th Century Year by Year, that a collection of original news paper articles (complete with the original B&W and Colour photographs) from the last century could be not just informative and insightful, but also interesting, intriguing, and delightfully readable. The book is filled with images that are by turns familiar, surprising, exotic, astonishing, dramatic, titillating, disturbing, shocking, and momentous: A young Albert Einstein basking in the glory of his first breakthrough; China’s child emperor Pu Yi; the sinking of The Titanic; a leggy Betty Grable; the underwater nuke tests at the bikini atoll; the first bikini; the D-Day Landings at Normandy; the rise of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Steven Spielberg, and Las Vegas; the liberation of Paris; Mandela walking to freedom; the fall of communism. I like to think of this as an instance of the converse of Albert Camus’ dictum that a novel is nothing but philosophy expressed in images: a collection of visual and verbal images that form a narrative that is loosely philosophical and as interesting as a novel.

The book opens dramatically on a world in flux, with the headline “World exhibition opens in Paris with style”, accompanied by a magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower and its surroundings. From here, the tale breaks into myriad strands. As you flip through the pages you witness the rise and fall of communism, the fall of the Romanovs, WW I and II, unimaginable cruelty and suffering, the birth of amazing new ways of looking at the universe, awe-inspiring feats of engineering and technology, and the creation of new perspectives in art, literature and cinema. Reading news paper reports gave me such an absolute sense of immediacy that, back in 2001, I ditched my history book in favour of The 20th Century Year by Year for the lesson on WW II history! And I also remember being spooked out just by reading a report about the 1920 surreal suspense thriller, The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari.

I would like to use this post to wish everyone who happens to be following this blog a very happy and interesting year ahead. May all of us live in interesting times! As interesting as the 20th century, but for the better.

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2 Responses to Notes on History: 20th Century Year by Year: The Great Work of Time

  1. anuradha says:

    This sounds like a collector’s item ! Gosh ! And to think that my new year resolution is not to buy any books this year but to read the 40 un-read ones by my bed-side and also re-read some of my favs !!
    Have you read anything by Joan Didion? I borrowed “A book of common prayer” from the library.Not very easy reading. I read almost half and gave up but am starting again and have decided to keep at it and finish it.

    • Surendran says:

      Haven’t read Joan Didion, but have heard of her and read about her work, particularly “The Year of Magical thinking”. Not sure if I’ll ever read her. She comes across as a great writer, but to be frank I find the premise of “The Year of Magical thinking” frightening and am not sure if I’m courageous enough to read something like it through to the end.

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