85 Years of Great Writing
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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.