Different ways to revisit the 1900s

7th November 2003 at 00:00
THE TIMES HISTORY OF THE 20th CENTURY. By Richard Overy. Times Books Harper Collins. pound;17.99. www.fireandwater.com

DAILY MIRROR A CENTURY OF NEWS. Edited by David and Emily Seymour. Contender Entertainment Group. pound;14.99. www.contendergroup.combooks

Ben Walsh finds riches in two books that look at the last century from contrasting perspectives

It is sometimes said that history is the new gardening, or cookery. As an historian, I suppose I am biased, but I find it hard to see how anyone could find cookery or gardening as fascinating as these two books. What they have in common is their content - an attempt to cover the history of the turbulent 20th century. Both can also boast impressive quality, attention to detail, and focus on the market they are targeting.

Where they diverge is in the nature of their approach to their coverage, one utterly serious and respectable and the other more openly populist.

Both are worth investing in, at the very least as a departmental resource for history teachers, but perhaps also as spare-time reading matter.

The Times History of the 20th Century oozes credibility from every page.

The large format and the name of one of Britain's leading history academics on the front page proclaims its authority and respectability. Overy's introduction is a masterly essay in summing up the rollercoaster century with all its glories and horrors. The book's list of contributors simply adds to its credentials - academic experts in a wide range of fields and geographical regions.

The timeline which introduces the book is nothing short of staggering. As it rolls on for page after page it can be overwhelming. However, persevere with it and you get a real sense of multi-perspective history in which Europe's concerns and problems are juxtaposed with those of Asia, Africa and the Americas. I found myself thinking of recent Ofsted reports on the teaching of history which, while generally positive, do point up the relative lack of time and space given to non-European issues. This is a resource which could at least fill any gaps in the knowledge of teachers on the Yugoslav Civil War or China after Mao.

All of the events you would expect to be covered are, of course, here - the World Wars, the Russian Revolution and so on. My favourite, however, is the lengthy section on "The Revolutionary Century". Here we are introduced to century-long perspectives on mass education, the growth of mass tourism, refugees and many other cross-border issues of relevance to the modern, increasingly globalised world.

Finally, do not make the mistake of seeing this book as simply a collection of maps. The maps are excellent, if sometimes a little cramped. But it is the text that brings this book alive. It is authoritative and impressively laden with facts and figures. It is also enhanced by photographs, paintings, profiles of key figures (like the four pictured here) and numerous other features.

The Daily Mirror: A Century of News suffers no concerns in attracting the eye. Some might quibble with the events chosen to define the 20th century, but that would be to miss the point. The editors have succeeded in making The Daily Mirror the undisputed star of this book. Its combination of crusading values, easy accessibility, patriotic concern and liberal warmth are all there - but what really comes over is the mischief and humour that have made this newspaper a national institution.

These two books could not be more different in their approach, but I pity anyone with an interest in history who had to choose between them. My advice? Buy them both and do without something else.

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