Fashioning our times

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Three histories of the 20th century show how we got where we are today. Tom Deveson takes a look

The millennium gets closer and the publishers get busy. What sense can be made of the past century? Is it an era of unprecedented cruelty, an age of admirable invention or a succession of random events? The Easy Guide to the 20th Century tells the story with dozens of attractive little pictures flickering over each page. The overall effect is bustling and cheerful.

But as decade succeeds decade, the vital differences are curiously blurred by the uniformity of colour-scheme - the Sixties are, inappropriately, as olive and ochre as the Twenties.

This is a pity, as the text is often intelligent and challenging, although delivered in tiny packages. It is hard to draw much meaning from drawings of Mrs Simpson looking like a deranged nurse or President de Gaulle like an eccentric GP.

The war maps are covered in arrows like a weather chart during a gale warning, but fail to explain why Germany, so universally attacked, didn't surrender in weeks. Misspellings such as "Jessie Owens", "seige" and "Wipey" hamburgers add nothing to a sense of reliability. Use this guide with caution.

Simon Adams's 20th Century: A Visual History employs Dorling Kindersley's usual format of clear pictures on a white ground. The scheme involves summaries of periods followed by double-page spreads covering five to 10-year episodes. These are then divided into strips showing, from top to bottom, arts, sciences, everyday life and world events - a curious set of priorities.

It is often illuminating. That fascinating and horrifying anticipatory era of early modernism, 1912-1917, is well served with pictures of futurist sculpture, a Tin Lizzie, Einstein, a zip, a tank, stainless steel cutlery, trench warfare, Lenin, and the Paul Nash painting "We Are Making a New World". The text requires readers who can handle small print as well as concepts such as "liberal government" or "serum injections".

This implies an audience old enough to be familiar with microwave cookers and barcodes and preparing to be interested in credit cards and contraceptive pills. Technology and its social impact is well-handled. The arts are more idiosyncratically treated. Would you want to jettison all mention of Auden, Britten and Henry Moore while making room for Jack Kerouac, Liza Minnelli and Damien Hirst?

Usborne's Atlas of the 20th Century is the best of the three. It provides 26 large maps, one for each double-page spread. These are surrounded by smaller maps, photographs, and drawings. The maps are clear and informative. On the Gallipoli Peninsula, you can see who was attacking whom, where they were doing it and why they failed. The maps have a generous eclecticism, so readers will find out about the rise of China and Japan, the birth of Israel and the decolonisation of Africa, as well as follow themes such as car ownership and the role of women.

Fact boxes giving dates and biographies are set among chunky, demanding paragraphs of explicatory prose. The photos, although sometimes familiar, are expressive - Neville Chamberlain fluttering his futile paper and Lenin's statue being winched into oblivion are pictures that tell a story.

A glossary (Aid to Zionism via Capitalism, Nuclear Energy, Perestroika and Superpowers) completes a well-told tale of big wars following small wars that makes you hope the next century will be different.

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