Books That Bring The Past Alive

The 21st century will not arrive for another year, but our media-rich age provides constant reminders of its imminence. Millennial anxiety, Year 2000 computer glitches, figuring out where to ring in the New Year--these are all problems most people would prefer not to think about. Yet turning points also provide a welcome opportunity to review the past.

This holiday season, publishers are offering an array of books that celebrate and assess the period now coming to a close--from its history and art to its sports figures. Among the art books are some wonderful retrospectives on the lives and work of individual artists, usually tied to museum exhibitions. The best of these oversized books permit readers to lose themselves for a while, learn some new things, and be dazzled along the way.

Harold Evans' The American Century (Knopf, $50) is a standout. At a doorstopping 710 pages, this richly illustrated history amazes with its sheer breadth and depth of information. Evans, the British-born editorial director and vice-chairman of The Daily News and U.S. News & World Report, doesn't bring academic credentials to the task. But Evans has spent many years in the U.S., and like other foreign observers before him, he strikes a balance between deep appreciation and reasoned criticism of his subject matter.

UNUSUAL PHOTOS. In a crisp and well-paced style, Evans begins his narrative in 1889, the start of the republic's second century, and ends it with the fall of the Berlin Wall 100 years later. An introductory essay sets off each chapter and provides the historical backdrop, while shorter pieces describe events or people: "Okies Hit the Road" in the chapter on the Great Depression and "The Dick and Henry Show" in the chapter on Watergate.

Gracing the elegant volume, with its ecru-colored pages, are 900 photos, many of them unusual for capturing a familiar face in an unfamiliar pose--a young and surprisingly dapper Richard Nixon adjusting his bow tie, a trim Ronald Reagan posing as the Gipper for art students at the University of Southern California in 1940. There are virtually no visual cliches in this book, and few literary ones. That's remarkable for a book that covers well-trod ground.

You can find a different and highly selective view of the 20th century in the lush Photographs: Then and Now (National Geographic, $50). Because the magazine's photographers and writers have returned repeatedly to the same locations around the world, National Geographic had a rich trove from which to choose. Organized by regions, with brief captions and excerpts from the magazine's articles, the beautiful pictures elicit surprise and prompt reflection.

Little seems to have changed, for instance, over a period of 25 years in Afghanistan. In a photo taken in 1968, a woman concealed in the traditional chadri balances a birdcage on her head, while in 1993 a woman wearing similar garb holds a child in her arms. Alternatively, you can observe how much has changed, and how easily some cultures adapt. Compare the Lapp family in Norway posing outside its one-room sod house in 1893 with the 1983 picture of a Lapp mother checking the oil in her car as her daughter looks on, both decked out in traditional attire.

EYE-OPENERS. Careful observation doesn't come easily in our harried lives. The fascinating book On Reflection (National Gallery of London and Yale University, $40) by Jonathan Miller teaches such observation and is well worth checking out before you go to another exhibit or turn the pages of another art book. Miller, a physician who has long worked in theater, opera, and the visual arts, has chosen a wide array of paintings by artists from Rembrandt to Velazquez, as well as photographs, to examine for their use of light, color, and shadow. While many of the cited works predate the 20th century, Miller's sensibility is distinctly modern, replete with discussions of perception and self-representation.

Two artists who ushered in the 20th century get their due this year in museum exhibits and lush volumes reviewing their work. John Singer Sargent (Princeton University Press, $60), edited by Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond, demonstrates that Sargent was far more than a fine portraitist of the Gilded Age: His Boston Public Library murals and his renderings of soldiers during World War I are eye-openers. The detailed captions give new context to his better-known portraits. A Sargent exhibit travels to Washington and Boston next year from its current installation at the Tate Gallery in London. Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman (Art Institute of Chicago and Harry N. Abrams, $65), with contributions by numerous art historians, chronicles the life and examines the work of the only North American invited to exhibit with the French Impressionists. Scholarly contributions help illuminate the influence of Degas and Japanese artists on Cassatt's work, and the volume affords a much more relaxed appreciation of the artist than does the show now packing in visitors at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Two icons of modern art in the 20th century get a fresh look in exhibits and books this year. Jackson Pollock (Museum of Modern Art, $75) by Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel, curators at MOMA, offers a comprehensive view of the irrepressible artist, with a scholarly appraisal that attributes surprising deliberation to Pollock's seemingly casual "drip" technique, based on an analysis of films and still photos of Pollock at work. Mark Rothko (National Gallery of Art and Yale University Press, $65), in its copious, finely printed color plates, manages to convey the depth of color and shading in Rothko's work, a difficult task. Four essays by art historians analyze Rothko's paintings, and interviews with artists are included.

An exhaustive and consistently interesting survey of the past century's art can be found in Art of the 20th Century (Taschen, $80). With contributions from numerous European scholars, the slipcased, two-volume survey of art, sculpture, photography, and new media is a valuable reference tome. Another survey, At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture (The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and Harry N. Abrams, $65) offers arresting photographs and drawings. Rather than merely highlight noteworthy structures, the book's contributors try to explain architectural trends around the world and the links between them.

Sports books don't always rank with art and photography books as worthy coffee table candidates, but this season one title more than makes the grade. For the Love of the Game: My Story by Michael Jordan (Crown, $50) is snappily designed, with riveting photos and great text, printed on specially manufactured high-quality stock. Perhaps it's not surprising that the man who took basketball to new heights has raised the bar for sports books. It's just one of numerous gift books available that show how rewarding a leisurely look back can be.

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