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Same century, different viewpoint


By Peter Jennings, Todd Brewster

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608 pp., $60

Endeavoring to shape a pre-millennial zeitgeist, journalists Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster employ a pastiche of approaches, unfamiliar photographs, and eyewitness accounts in piecing together "The Century."

Like Harold Evans, the authors prize hearing the unheard, informing the reader from the outset that their book, "above all, is a chronicle of how ordinary people experience history."

First-person accounts of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam provide the emotional resonance and complexity of circumstance often absent in Jennings and Brewster's rather clipped and tidy chronology.

Conceived as a companion piece to a 27-hour documentary slated to air in 1999, "The Century" rolls along, ticking off all that is newsworthy. Clarity and coolness characterize the chronicle, burdening the eyewitness accounts with the task of conveying the human side of history.

One misses the level of engagement and artful, intimate synthesis at work in Evans's "The American Century." Too often the news of "The Century" is just that, news, scenes glimpsed from a train window rather than a walk in the company of a bardic guide. Yet those who prefer piecing together time past rather than experiencing it filtered through a single sensibility will find much to appreciate in "The Century."

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The straight chronology, from "Seeds of Change" to "Machine Dreams," ranges wider than Evans's narrative, at times preferring a Western lens to one made in, if not for, America. That said, readers coming to "The Century" for a global perspective will find themselves compelled to wish upon stars and stripes.

The authors write, "Our history spans the world, but only in the way that Americans' own experience of this time has."

The criterion for inclusion? "Was this an event that affected American life, either directly or indirectly?" Such ethnocentrism leads one to question the curious anxiety that leads a country to claim ownership of a century.

Whatever transpired throughout the past 100 years, conclude both works, it bore the indelible imprint of the United States. Yet a quick step back reveals an adolescent culture grappling with the issue of identity. By preferring humility to hubris, Evans's "The American Century" proves a more telling diary of America's heady, hectic times.

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