"85 Years of Great Writing in Time" (Time Books, 560 pages, $26.95): Those of us who traffic in words for a living feel somewhat under siege these days, like a Donkey Kong machine sitting forlornly in the corner of a ramshackle pizza parlor while teenagers on the sidewalk outside play Grand Theft Auto on their handhelds.
The printed word, the modern narrative goes, is not what it used to be. What's more, it's become barely passable as a method of communication in an increasingly visual culture that defines itself through images and rarely slows down to read.
That's why "85 Years of Great Writing in Time" is such a necessary tonic.
An anthology of first rough drafts of history from the storied news weekly is not only a chronicle of our era in its own voices: It's a robust reaffirmation of the printed word.
The writing in Time magazine under its founder, Henry Luce, was long and richly parodied " "Backward rolled the sentences until reeled the mind" " but the tapestry of pieces collected here defies pigeonholing. They are eloquent and elegant, insightful and incisive, a documentation of a century like no other.
Here is Elie Wiesel in 1987 about the Nazi Klaus Barbie, elevating the written word even as he acknowledges its limitations: "Only those who were there know what it meant to be there. The others can, at best, come close to the gate. There they must stop. They will never see the fire. They will never witness the sight of children thrown into flames alive. They will never experience the fear of selections for the execution chambers. Knowledge can be shared; experience cannot."
Here is Alexander Eliot in 1953 about the American penchant for photography: "Its function is quick impact. Yet it sees many things the human eye does not see, in a way the human brain alone cannot retain. It is compiling a vast and brilliant album of the odd, the beautiful and terrible human family."
Here is a Time writer, name unknown, writing in 1939 on Sigmund Freud: "He emerged as the greatest killjoy in the history of human thought, transforming man's jokes and gentle pleasures into dreary and mysterious repressions, discovering hatreds at the root of love, malice at the heart of tenderness, incest in filial affections, guilt in generosity and the repressed hatred of one's father as a normal human inheritance."
The decades unfold before us like a Billy Joel song: Hitler, the coffee break, Sinatra; the polio vaccine, the moon landing, Watergate; Bill Gates, Katrina, Viagra. Each is described in a combination of social currency " this is, after all, news " and an awareness of timelessness, as if the writers knew we would look back and read their words as cultural documents.
And documents they are " living ones, not brittle and yellowed. The pieces in this book reveal some truths about good news writing and incisive thought here in 2008, the written word's most sadly uncertain year yet:
- Imparting valuable information about the world to people can actually be accomplished without an over-reliance on servicey "news to use" pieces.
- There is a thoughtfulness, a lack of histrionics about the written word that we, moving through our increasingly frantic days, might well find useful.
- Eloquent language moves people in ways that nothing else can.
- Bullet points like the ones you're now reading are often used as a quick-fix substitute for sophisticated thinking.
But wait, you say: These scribblings are hoary old chestnuts from another, quainter age. They don't offer much new wisdom. Well, no. Consider Roger Rosenblatt's magnificently understated "The Man in the Water," from 1982 " an essay about an unidentified good Samaritan who saved fellow passengers from a plane crash in the Potomac River before going underwater for good.
"... the man in the water had his own natural powers," Rosenblatt wrote. "He could not make ice storms, or freeze the water until it froze the blood. But he could hand life over to a stranger, and that is a power of nature too. The man in the water pitted himself against an implacable, impersonal enemy; he fought it with charity; and he held it to a standoff. He was the best we can do."
This writers of this compilation of humanity's chronicles approached their craft not unlike that man in the water faced his end. At their best, Time's writers targeted implacable enemies, tried to fight charitably and hoped their words would hold towering forces such as chaos and tyranny at bay.
We are their jury. Read this book and decide for yourself whether they made a difference.