Reynolds, Jonathan T., ed.: 30-second twentieth century

Reynolds, Jonathan T., ed.

30-Second Twentieth Century: the 50 Most Significant Ideas and Events, each Explained in Half a Minute, Pier 9, Sydney, 2015

Twentieth Century presents a unique approach to modern history, condensing 100 years of innovation and art, politics and conflict, triumph and disaster, into 50 graphic snapshots that offer an instant appreciation of the way the world revolves and evolves. Consider which events define a period of history and why. From the Red Army to Black Monday, from Woodstock to the World Wide Web, this is the fastest way to travel in time. (blurb)


This is an odd book but an intriguing one. It seems not to have been reviewed yet – it only appeared on 22 April – so here goes.

At first glance, this looks like a book you would keep next to the phone against the possibility of being the phoned friend on a trivia night. But then you realise the index is not very comprehensive and the table of contents is in parts opaque. So the book doesn’t really qualify as a compendium. Rather, it is a collection of ready references to a fairly idiosyncratic collection of topics, under the headings of science and technology, arts and entertainment, war and conflicts, politics and society, industry and economics, medicine and health, and events, triumphs and tragedies.

I could not swear that every single one of the 50 articles could be read in 30 seconds. I rather doubt it. Scientists will probably skim through the science items while being less confident on war and conflicts, for example. Historians might do the reverse. There are little teasers (‘3-second thrash’, ‘3-second biographies’) to help you in and ‘3-minute thought’ paragraphs if you want to go ‘deeper’. There are glossaries and seven representative biographies (Einstein, Picasso, Hitler, Eva Peron, Keynes, Patrice Lumumba and Rosalind Franklin, whose name, I’m afraid to say, I did not recognise – get the book and find about her) each of which will take most readers a couple of minutes at least to get through.

Some of the entries that leapt out were ‘the Green Revolution’, ‘the global broadcast of “All you need is love”‘ (I remember it well), ‘Dien Bien Phu’, ‘Kaiser Wilson’ (who was he?), ‘pile it high, sell it low’, and ‘red rubber scandal in the Belgian Congo’. That should whet appetites.

This is not the type of book that this reviewer really warms to but it could well be useful to a bright Year 9 or 10 student looking for a quick introduction to the modern world or to someone embarking on a Big History course or, indeed, to a general reader with an inquiring and eclectic bent. There are 14 contributors, the book is a slim and well-packaged 160 pages and it is quite cheap. It will do no harm and could do a lot of good.

29 April 2015


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