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Mapping Geographic's century

The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery. By C.D.B. Bryan. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 484 pp. $45. I grew up with the National Geographic. There were stacks of them in my grandfather's library. Every month we received a new one in the mail. I savored each issue of the yellow-bordered, shiny-paged magazine with its revelations about wondrous places and exotic peoples and, early on, decided that I, too, was going to study natural history, geography, and anthropology.

The more I learned about the natural world, the more impressed I was with the audacity of the Geographic's explorers and their determination to push the limits of discovery. Yet, the more I learned about society and culture, the more troubled I became over the journal's unevenness in the reporting of social phenomena.

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Too often its writers and photo editors seemed to present their stories from a narrow, ethnocentric perspective. Their images didn't jibe with others' accounts. Such discrepancies were not limited to descriptions of sinister-looking tribesmen, superstitious peasants, or uninhibited, bare-breasted women who lived far from our shores; nor were they all prewar.

Even in the '50s and '60s, sanitized articles about those who lived in the poverty of Appalachia or in urban ghettos continued to appear. Then, sometime in the last decade, a sea change in sociological reporting occurred when the criteria of independent journalism seemed to have supplanted the allegedly apolitical but clearly biased policies of the board and its senior editors.

These matters have long been the subject of discussion and debate, as C.D.B. Bryan shows in this comprehensive history of the society.

Bryan, a skillful writer best known for his book on Vietnam, ``Friendly Fire,'' spent a year and a half at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society. He was given carte blanche to look at everything and talk to everyone. The result is not only a finely produced, amply illustrated, and suitably hefty volume to grace the coffee tables of thousands of Geographic aficionados, but also a highly informative - and entertaining - source book for those, like me, who have long had a love-hate relationship with the whole enterprise.

Bryan tells the story of the society, the largest nonprofit, scientific, and educational membership institution in the world. He highlights its principal characters, those who gathered in Washington to found it in 1888 and the tight-knit Grosvenor family whose members ran it for three generations, and details the myriad of activities sponsored by the society and reported on by staffers and free-lancers who obtained the coveted opportunity to write for the Geographic.

His book is divided into 10 double chapters, the first part of each focusing on a specific period in the society's history, the second, less fixed in time, describing such society-related accomplishments as the conquests of the North and South Poles; the coverage of natural and man-made disasters, politics and war, up to and including Vietnam; the spectacular findings of archaeologists, paleontologists, and ethologists; the charting of seas and mountains and outer space; the moves to conserve nature's resources; the exploration of ``inner space.''

In addition to the Grosvenors, Bryan acknowledges many others who had a hand in many of the society's most exciting exploits: Powell. Amundsen. Byrd. Peary. Lindbergh. Earhart. Cousteau. Heyerdahl. Hillary. Glenn. Shepard.

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The book is filled with photographs. Some, such as the posed portraits of happy natives, are, at best, period pieces; others, such as the spectacular views of nature's wonders, are timeless. All are somehow familiar. Like the format and print of this yellow-bordered, shiny-papered oversize tome, they have an unmistakable Geographic feel about them.

Bryan's centennial compendium is at once a nostalgic celebration of ``100 Years of Adventure and Discovery'' by the members of the society and a thoughtful assessment of a very British if uniquely American club that, until recently, seemed to be the last bastion of Victorian gentlemen, Kiplingesque romantics, hearty adventurers, professional cartographers, travel writers, and wide-eyed little boys.

Peter I. Rose is Sophia Smith professor of sociology and anthropology at Smith College.

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