After seeing the above ad (or its full-color double-page sibling) in a 1970 issue of LIFE, I decided to seek out used copies of the entire This Fabulous Century series. Or — more accurately — I bought a couple of the books from an online seller a few years ago, forgot about them until earlier this summer when I was decluttering the living room, then went back and ordered the remaining volumes.
The shipping fees cost more than the books themselves, which are handsome tomes sporting cloth-bound covers with patterns reflecting their featured historical decades. They are also a half-inch too tall to squeeze into my living room bookshelf, which might be why I didn’t pick up the entire set during my earlier moment of interest.
Time-Life booksets were a staple part of my formative years, present in some form in the stacks or every public or school library and family room shrine to off-the-rack literary culture. Illustration-heavy, factoid-packed, and always a bit dated, they were the stuff from which countless elementary theme papers were frantically cobbled. The Wild, Wild World of Dangerous Sea Creatures was a much loved childhood companion in those immediate post-Jaws years, and the Nature Library’s The Universe still elicits gasps of nostalgic rapture from nerds of a certain age.
And the commercials? Well, those could be the subject of a post in and of themselves.
My wife and I have already had few of the these sets between us — paranormal and mythic tales stuff purchased by Maura in her late teens, mostly complete DIY and Nature Library runs picked up at estate sale, and a single volume of The Nazi Years I bought because it had a chapter on Eastern Front camouflage schemes I used as a photo-reference during my Warhammer 40,000 days.
I was drawn to This Fabulous Century for a few reasons. It’s an early(ish) example of the “decade” theory of history, a problematic and arbitrary that has also taken on the qualities of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s also a chronicle of America’s emergence as a dominant world power, one that caps off on the year — 1970 — when the myth of the so-called “American Century” had begun to enter a protracted implosive phase.
While facts may be revised and theories fall from favor, vintage popular history books retain scholastic value as artifacts of their age. Even the most objective chronicler will lens events though contemporary experience, holding up a subconscious mirror to the times in which they lived. A Saturday Evening Post article on the Roman Empire written in 1955 will, over time, do more to illuminate the America of 1955 than it does the age of Augustus and Tiberius.
This Fabulous Century is a nostalgic overview of one hundred years of American cultural history, as interpreted at the very moment the nation was entering a fractious crisis of collective faith. As someone whose studies keep taking him back to said crisis, it makes for some fascinating reading.
The political tone and level of engagement varies wildly between the individual books and chapters, veering from staidly reverent to subversively snarky. It’s a series that served up a nauseating hagiography to J. Edgar Hoover in the Thirties volume yet dedicated multiple pages to a gallery of photos and quotes from Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and other Black Power activists in the Sixties one. Even Popular Front supporters and other homegrown leftists get a fairly gentle, if dismissive, treatment that would be considered supportive by today’s standards.
Some of that can be chalked up to the nature of the periodical source material pulled from Time and Life, which swung between a commitment to the “liberal consensus” and the Luces’ particular set of conservative obsessions (i.e. China, Communism, Catholicism, Capitalism). The rest of it is a reflection and acknowledgement of changing times or subtle cross-promotional intent. (The chapter on big band music is unusually detailed and long, which I’m sure had nothing to do with The Swing Era boxed LP sets Time-Life just happened to be flogging at the time.)
The books make for good bathroom and bedtime reading. While their focus is too scattershot to serve as proper historical text, they do provide an entertaining survey of the eras covered and offer plenty of leads for further study — such as today’s “dad jokes” being rooted in the “college humor” mag mania of the Twenties or the “small town” Americana serving as a nostalgic locus to the Greatest Generation in the same way Eighties’ toy franchises do for Gen X’ers and Millennials.
All in all, they were a good purchase. Now if only I could find a place to shelve the damn things…