It's not just a grab bag of 770 arresting, touching, scary, funny, alternately famous and unfamiliar images. It tells a semi-coherent story by breaking up the century into nine "epochs," each introduced with a brief essay by a leading intellectual light (David M. Kennedy, Paul Fussell, and Garry Wills do especially well). There are fun facts aplenty: did you know Columbia Pictures' Lady Liberty-like logo was inspired by a debutante in an anti-Hun propaganda poster? Or that Ike almost chose Margaret Chase Smith instead of Nixon? Each epoch gets assigned a "Turning Point," sometimes a defining moment or a flashy burst of upbeat cultural documentary to offset the sometimes stark violent-event photos. The World War I section breaks up the black-and-white trench-fighting scenes with a quickie history of the American musical, pages as radiant as a rainbow. Each chapter ends with "Requiem" photos of people whose passing is still news.
The layouts are often superb: you have to open the book to see how perfect a Mondrian looks next to a photo of college girls doing patriotic calisthenics that transform them into a similarly energetic grid. There are heftier historic-photo collections, like Bruce Bernard's true test of coffee-table construction, the 1,120-page Century: One Hundred Years of Human Progress, Regression, Suffering, and Hope. But you're not going to find a more popular book of its kind than Stolley and Chiu's. --Tim Appelo
Hardcover : 423 pages
Dimensions: 9.8 x 11.3 x 1.6 inches