The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker
edited by Robert Mankoff
published by Black Dog & Leventhal
304 pages, 2004
The Travel Book
444 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
Back in the 1970s, NBC tried a weekly Sunday evening program called The Big Event. I remember that one of the events was a new version of the Godfather films, recut by Francis Ford Coppola as one big movie. I also remember that the reality of actually coming up with a weekly big event proved too daunting a task for NBC in those days when there were just four or five channels, and the series died.
I guess the point is that events of a certain magnitude don't happen all the time (despite NBC's hopes), so when they do, it's a big deal.
In Washington, DC, a new presidential election might qualify. In sports, there's the Olympics. In Hollywood, the well-oiled publicity machine would have you believe that every summer weekend they can deliver another big event movie -- but it seldom happens.
In publishing, one could argue that new novels by certain authors are big events. But now, it seems, publishing has found a new way to make a big event. In my book it's working.
Black Dog & Leventhal has weighed in with The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker -- and it's an event that's actually big. Perhaps even gargantuan.
While New Yorker cartoon books have been published before, they have been themed collections. Never before has the whole megillah been collected at one time. And how could it have been? There have been just short of 69,000 cartoons published since the magazine's debut in 1925.
But technology -- often the ridiculed scapegoat -- has now provided a way to do it. While the book holds 2,004 of the very best cartoons, two included CD-ROMs contain the entire collection: all 68,647 cartoons.
Selected by the magazine's cartoon editor Robert Mankoff and presented chronologically, the work is nothing less than astounding. The book has serious heft issues: it's 656 pages, with a trim size of 11 inches by 13 inches. If this is a coffee table book, you'll be reading it on the coffee table, not in your lap.
Decade by decade, the cartoons spill forth, perhaps eight or ten per spread. These delicate black-and-white drawings, sometimes scribbled, sometimes detailed, are always rich, wry and often laugh-out-loud observations of American life over the last 80 years.
What strikes me as remarkable is that while the cartoons can be grouped into certain themes -- money, sex, society, etc. -- we seem to have changed very little in these eight decades. Despite the broad range of artists, the overall voice of the cartoons is virtually the same in the first one as in the last. That sense of knowing disgust, of a tolerated silliness, of a ridiculous more, of a social group at which fun has been poked. As I read this book -- and I actually read every cartoon on every one of those pages -- I often found myself laughing out loud and forcing my wife to come over and read them, too.
There are wonderful essays by Roger Angell, Lillian Ross, John Updike, Ian Frazier, Calvin Trillin and other acclaimed New Yorker writers, as well as sections devoted to some of the more celebrated cartoonists: Peter Arno, George Price, Charles Addams, Alex Gregory, Bruce Eric Kaplan, William Steig, James Thurber, Roz Chast and George Booth.
This collection represents a search of every page of the New Yorker -- over 400,000 in all. It must have taken months. And, believe me, it was worth every last second.
Another big book worth a closer look is The Travel Book. This one, at 448 pages with a trim size even bigger than Cartoons, showcases the world as it exists today, country by country. Presented alphabetically, with a two-page spread devoted to each country, the book offers cultural insights, population and language statistics and much more.
Best of all, it offers gorgeous photographs -- more than 1200 of them -- taken in 230 countries by the talented Lonely Planet staff. In short, this definitive pictorial of planet earth is astounding in its beauty.
Now, how could anyone reduce a whole nation to, say, half a dozen photographs? It's one thing if it's a small nation, an island somewhere, but what if that nation is China or Russia or the United States? What then? What choices would the editors make? Would it work? Or would the reader simply feel cheated of a more comprehensive experience?
In the end, one gets a feeling of how overwhelming the world really is. There is such variation, from the battle weary sidewalks of New York City to the arid landscape of Egypt to the fertile rain forests of Costa Rica to the dry savannahs on the African continent. I was -- and continue to be -- amazed that our planet contains such diversity of place and of people.
Reading The Travel Book, one is unable to ignore the feelings that stir inside: the idea that each nation, whether friend or foe of our own, holds its own startling beauty, and that its people, whoever they are, want in the end the same things: peace, prosperity (defined on local terms), and the ability to reap the pleasures of family and friends.
Both of these books -- big events to be sure -- are insanely affordable. Both hammer home the refreshingly simple notion that nothing is quite so large that we cannot comprehend or appreciate or even be changed by it. Rather than a delicious irony, I believe this was the whole point, for both publishers, all along. | November 2004
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. He writes advertising for a large marketing firm and is building a small book publishing company in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.