Today’s kids have no shortage of material for distraction or instruction. For boomers and Gen-Xers who grew up in a five-channel universe, the infotainment options were few. In my primary school years, my two main mentors for art and writing were Marvel Comics wizards Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Time-Life books supplied my extracurricular learning.
From the 1940s to the 1980s, Henry Luce’s publishing empire was a major vector for manufacturing consent in Cold War America. Whenever the time came to prime the U.S. middle class for new foreign or domestic policies, Time-Life’s apparatchiks responded with groupthink editorials and articles. It wasn’t the middlebrow boilerplate of Time and Life magazines that gripped my imagination, however. It was the company book series on science and nature.
You can still find worn copies of these early-’60s volumes at garage sales and flea markets. Though now long outdated, the Time-Life books were marked by graphic excellence and workmanlike prose. The chapters of each volume, assigned to a skilled journalist, alternated with graphic sections with excellently produced maps, charts, illustrations and photos. Though written at an adult level, the books seemed designed to catch the imagination of young readers. They worked for me.
As a kid in Ontario, I ate up these books for lunch. I would grok the colour plates of exploding stars, and geek out to the combustible/corrosive effects of the hundred-plus elements listed in a foldout chart of the periodic table — a visual almost as incendiary as the centrefolds I discovered in my dad’s unsuccessfully concealed Playboy magazines.
I suspect the 1957 Russian launch of Sputnik had something to do with the early ’60s explosion of popularized science in North America. What if the “Russian experiment” was producing a class of young technocrats capable of overtaking the U.S. in space? It seems likely that Luce’s print powerhouse, which had trumpeted a fictitious nuclear “missile gap” between the U.S. and Soviet Union, had coughed up its academic popularizations as part of the space-race zeitgeist.
Decades later, I passed on boxes of Time-Life books to my eight year-old niece. In spite of the gap in time and knowledge, she was as delighted with the books as I was, poring over them obsessively at home.
As far as I know, Time-Life books weren’t used as teaching resources in the standard curriculum, although hardier editions with sturdier binding were available for school libraries. In contrast, textbooks and school instructional resources seemed designed less to cultivate critical thinking in students than to crowbar correct answers out of their resistant brainpans (I remember a few bright spots in the educational texts, but only where the authors’ voices shone through, rather than the horse-by-committee prose of standardized learning).
For me, Luce’s volumes imparted an early excitement in the world around me — a frisson I rarely experienced in school hours, even in the chosen degree mill of my postsecondary years. In fact, it’s safe to say the bulk of my learning took place before and after the school bell rang, with material light-years off the curriculum — literally.
Time-Life books started off with an early-’60s bang and ended with a late-’80s whimper. In between there were series on art, history, psychology, anthropology, photography, gardening, the Second World War, the Third Reich, the Old West, lost empires, and finally the occult and fairy tales. Popularization descended into pap, reflected in Time-Life’s launch of its most profitable weekly publication yet: People magazine. At the dawn of celebrity culture in America, Luce’s limping colossus had struck one last seam of gold. The company closed its book division in 2003.
How many of today’s students struggle, and even fail, because the course content fails to spark the flame of intellectual discovery? And how many kids will never be exposed to the kind of “natural philosophy” that supplements narrow specialization with broader understanding? The Time-Life books on nature and science are long outdated and mostly forgotten, but their influence still lingers in my imagination. Even if they were products of the Cold War, my affection for them remains.
(Correction: last week I misquoted Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee that 177 underground tanks are leaking 150 to 300 gallons of radioactive waste a year into the ground at Hanford nuclear reservation. The item should have read that six of 177 underground tanks are leaking 150 to 300 gallons a year.)