The Millennium Books


As the millennium approaches it is worth remembering that dates are only cultural by-products. The year 2000 is 1420 by the Islamic calendar, 5760 by the Jewish reckoning, and 2544 for Buddhists. Purists point out, correctly, that the millennium won’t begin until 2001, while the best history of the 20th-century written thus far, Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, has the “short twentieth century” already over in 1989. Y2K is an arbitrary milepost.

Nevertheless, seeing as end-of-the-year recaps and “best of” collections have always been a staple of the publishing world, readers intent on finding out what they missed are already being offered a wide selection of century guides and surveys to choose from.

Is it possible to reduce a thousand or even a hundred years to a few hundred pages of text and pictures? Of course not. All the same, the following books – a grab-bag of the erudite and the ephemeral – do manage to store some fragments against the general ruin of all things past.

The only book received for review that tried to deal with the past thousand years as a unit was The Life Millennium. The form it takes is that year-end favourite, the book of lists.

The main event is a countdown of the 100 most important events of the millennium, beginning with the fixing of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 and ending with Gutenberg’s printing of the Bible in 1455. A second list then presents the 100 most important people of the millennium, those special individuals who “diverted the great stream of human history, and altered our perceptions perceptibly.” Using these criteria, the editors pick Thomas Edison as the most important millennial man, while the top woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, comes in at 26. For the record, and to confess my shame, there were 17 names I had never heard of.

Like most of the recent century lists, Life‘s millennial lists need to be taken with a grain of salt. Coming to any authoritative ranking is impossible because of the wild blending of categories, the comparison of historical apples and oranges. Was Hamlet (number 35) really more important than the theory of relativity (number 36)? Was James Madison (number 24) more important than Dante (number 50)? And how fair is it to compare people living at the end of the millennium with those whose historical importance has already been revealed?

The rest of the retrospectives wisely limit themselves to the 20th century. Even so, they have their work cut out.

Now that it is all but over, what can we say for sure about the 20th century? For one thing, the human population of the globe tripled, mainly as the result of the green revolution and the control of contagious diseases. This population was increasingly located in cities and, especially among affluent societies at the end of the century, the suburbs. In a 100-year span nature went from something to be conquered to something in need of protection.

Technology was the new environment, and it evolved at a speed that even in hindsight is hard to believe. In 1903, the Wright brothers managed to keep a wood-wire-and-cloth apparatus aloft for almost a minute. Only 66 years later a man was walking on the moon. Devices that I grew up with – typewriters, vinyl records, rotary phones – virtually disappeared within a decade.

Of all the new retrospectives the best general guide to the century is the Oxford History of the Twentieth Century. The essays, written by academics but still accessible, provide excellent commentaries on the major demographic, political, scientific, and artistic movements of the past 100 years. Particularly commendable is the decision to include separate sections dealing with Africa and South America, continents that usually receive about as much attention as Antarctica.

Not that they are ignored without reason. In terms of geopolitics and global culture it was a Western century. As one of the Oxford authors puts it, “the central fact of the twentieth century is that the modern Western world has swept the rest of the world into its economic, technological, and cultural orbit.” The West, and in particular the United States, provided the model for most of the world’s developing nations, or at least their ruling elites.

At the end of the century, for example, a large majority of the Russian people wanted to see Communist Party rule give way to some form of socialism or social democracy. What they got instead was a particularly virulent brand of gangster capitalism.

In contrast to the Oxford History‘s analytic overview, Martin Gilbert’s two-volume (thus far) History of the Twentieth Century is pure chronicle, making its way through the century year by year without trying to force any kind of pattern or theory on the events it describes. Its focus is both Eurocentric and political, with the most attention given to the two World Wars. Indeed, the second volume of what is projected to be a trilogy only takes us through 1950. Was the second half of the 20th century really so uneventful? Judged on a scale of big events, perhaps it was.

Gilbert’s failings include the over-use of verbal formulas and the excessive pursuit of what are clearly personal obsessions (like tallying the annual deaths from automobile accidents). The value of his work lies in its accumulation of odd scraps and details. A letter from a disgruntled American serviceman in Korea complaining about fighting communism in a “barren oriental wasteland” rather than the “cradle of western culture and civilization” may tell us as much about post-war American attitudes than any number of pages of broad observations.

Complementing Gilbert’s massive undertaking, National Geographic: Eyewitness to the 20th Century presents a year-by-year chronicle in pictures. In other words, it is a coffee-table book – only one in which the pictures, for some reason, are all quite small. Along with the crowded text, split into numerous sidebars and timelines, one gets the sense of a collection of trivia.

But while it would be trite to say that nobody reads National Geographic (or coffee-table books, for that matter), the text in Eyewitness still rewards a passing glance. Even trivia can add to our understanding of the whole. In the first volume of Gilbert’s history, for example, we are told that the United States won an exceptionally large number of gold medals in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. What Gilbert does not mention, but National Geographic does, is that 80 per cent of the athletes that year were from the United States. Many countries did not send teams because they thought St. Louis was still part of the Wild West.

The story of the century is brought closer to home in a pair of coffee-table books dealing with what Wilfrid Laurier, speaking in 1904, dubbed “Canada’s Century.” In the introduction to Maclean’s Canada’s Century, Peter C. Newman echoes Laurier’s boosterism while adding his own end-of-the-century glow to the dubious slogan:

Between 1900, when a fresh epoch dawned over an unsuspecting Dominion, then barely a country, and the summer of 1999, when that nation finds itself on the cusp of a new millennium, Canadians could believe with some justification that the twentieth century had belonged to them.

Thankfully, there isn’t a lot more of that. The text of Canada’s Century consists mainly of columns culled from the magazine’s nearly 100-year history, including the bylines of Morley Callaghan, Pierre Berton, and June Callwood.

The best excerpts help us understand the past not by telling us exactly what happened but by showing us how people felt about it at the time. The results can be both instructive and amusing. A 1920 column, for example, begins by warning of “another peril, almost as menacing as Bolshevism, which is spreading westward from Russia.” The lesser scourge, you will be relieved to know, was only typhus.

Unfortunately, the pictures and layout of Canada’s Century are a disappointment. Readers who have watched Maclean’s recently make itself over into one of the least-attractive mass market magazines in Canada will not be surprised. For some reason (one suspects cost, but this is already an expensive book) the photographs are all reproduced in a tinted two-colour format. Meanwhile, errors in the captioning include the mislabelling of a picture of R. B. Bennett and Mackenzie King – the man Maclean’s ranks as our greatest Prime Minister! Is there no indignity Canadian history will be spared?

A better selection of photos, albeit accompanied by less remarkable text, is found in Canada: Our Century. Taking the form of a scrapbook, it presents 500 pictures (what the editors call “visions”) drawn from Canada’s past.

The best thing about the photos in Our Century is their anonymous, demotic quality. This is not a collection of the nation’s greatest hits or most memorable moments, but a nostalgic wander through common fields of meaning. Or at least that’s the way it starts out. In the ’80s and ’90s the book loses a lot of its charm as celebrity starts to take over, unconsciously demonstrating another 20th-century trend.

Spotting these trends is the job of the reader. An understanding of what happened in the last 100 years should help give us some idea, however inexact, of the shape of things to come. So what does the future have in store?

The next century will see the global population continue to age and expand, probably peaking at around 10 billion in 2050. Undoubtedly this will put some strain on both the environment and the economy.

At the same time, technology is likely to continue its advance, driven by further developments in the still relatively new computer sciences. The Life editors warn us that the era of human beings as the most intelligent entities on Earth is coming to an end.

Clearly, humankind is something to be surpassed. The controversial advances in genetic science, including the knowledge being acquired in the human genome project and the development and commercialization of reproductive technologies, promise a brave new world of designer humans that will make current arguments over genetically engineered foods seem quaint in comparison. The prediction of science-fiction writers that our grandchildren may not be recognizable to us as human beings is no longer as far-fetched as it seemed just 10 years ago.

Indeed, our grandchildren may not care to recognize us. A bad attitude could be as dangerous for civilization in the long run as a corrupt environment or the proliferation of highly portable weapons of mass destruction.

One of the most disturbing trends of the century, encouraged by the over-specialization of modern life, has been the widespread adoption (at least in the West) of unenlightened self-interest as a moral system. The real threat to our most valuable institutions – a free press, public education, responsible government – may be the withdrawal of “First World” nations into the kind of public apathy typical in totalitarian regimes. Whether a world worth living in can survive a culture where short-sighted selfishness and social indifference have been widely accepted as moral norms is a pressing question.

In any event, we can be sure that we will be living the next century on the edge. The scale of civilization in the 21st century – its size, speed, and capacity for destruction – will also increase its vulnerability and magnify the consequences of its mistakes. Only with luck will human adaptability be able to keep pace with the world we cannot imagine yet.

Review first published November 27, 1999.

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