A Reader’s Guide to the Century

The Century

by Peter Jennings, by Todd Brewster
Doubleday, 606 pp., $60.00

The American Century

by Harold Evans, with Gail Buckland, by Kevin Baker
Knopf, 710 pp., $50.00

The Columbia History of the Twentieth Century

edited by Richard W. Bulliet
Columbia University Press, 651 pp., $49.95

Chronicle of the 20th Century

edited by Clifton Daniel, by John W. Kirshon, foreword by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., by An updated edition will be published in November.
Dorling Kindersley, 1540 pp., $49.95

If we removed all the page numbers from War and Peace, it would not take anything away from the meaning of the novel. Nor would restoring the numbers deepen the story. The numbers are there to help us return to a passage in an artifact to whose meaning they are irrelevant. When different editions of Tolstoy’s Russian novel, or of its translations, make Peter’s words show up on differently numbered pages, the words are unaffected. The numbering of years and centuries and millennia is as arbitrary a way of flagging reality as is pagination. The flow of life is not deeply altered by the fact that December 31 is assigned to one year, January 1 to another—or by saying that we are twentieth-century creatures now but will become twenty-first- centuryites in five (or in seventeen) months. Reality does not come to us in neatly labeled packages. We impose the labels. Even our talk of “this century” is a Eurocentric convention, ignoring the existence of other calendars in China or Thailand. It was comparatively recently that parts of Europe itself ceased having two calendars, the Julian and the Gregorian (Russia did not give up the former until 1917, and Greece not till 1923). Farther back in time, Europe began the new year in March, not January. What happened on either date was not altered by what was no more than a different “page number.”

One attempt to escape arbitrary units simply reifies in a more drastic way some stretch of time as an entity. I have been told, for instance, that the “real” 1960s, as opposed to the calendar 1960s, ran from (say) 1963, from Dr. King’s March on Washington and President Kennedy’s assassination, to 1974, to American withdrawal from Vietnam and the Watergate investigations. But for whom was this time unit the reality? Not, presumably, for a poor mother in Africa, who could not care much about America’s designs on Vietnam.

As some people search for the “real” Sixties, others now want to define the “real” twentieth century. The most famous of these is the respected historian Eric Hobsbawm, in The Age of Extremes, a book he published in 1994. He could analyze the period so early since his twentieth century runs only from 1914 to 1991, a “short century” to go with his “long nineteenth century,” described in an earlier trilogy—a century which ran from the 1780s to 1914. That long period, Hobsbawm claimed, was an age of “revolution, capital, and empire.” Our later, shorter time is just an age of “extremes,” concluded by the fall of the Soviet Empire. Naming these periods as if they were single things is a dubious exercise. The eighteenth century, called by many the age of reason, was as much a time of Pamela’s tears and Rousseau’s sentiment as of Newton’s Optics. The Romantic Era, so called, was the time when science and the industrial revolution radically reshaped lives.

Generalizations can mislead us …

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Letters

Living & Dying December 16, 1999