Fifty years ago the great Melville Bell Grosvenor, then the presiding quintessence of National Geographic (son of the magazine’s first editor-in-chief, and grandson of Alexander Graham Bell), collaborated with a bullpen of very creative people and dreamed up a line of National Geographic books, big, heavy, lavishly illustrated things that acted as subject- specific compendiums of the vast treasures of art and writing that were steadily accumulating in the magazine’s pages. He thought of them as perfect gift items, wonderful keepsakes of some of the Society’s most engaging work, and for ten years or so, new volumes appeared with happy regularity.
One of the earliest was something of a sure bet, subject-wise: Man’s Best Friend, a genial, joyful dog-collection from 1958. It was resolutely nothing out of the ordinary: an anatomical chart of dogs, a run-down of all the major breeds (with somewhat stiff though heartfelt illustrations by Walter Weber and a handful of others), chapters on dog shows, police and fire dogs, canine care and feeding, the history of canine domestication (with plenty of the Society’s signature great artwork reproductions), and yet it sold through several large editions, borne along by the burgeoning dog-ownership mania of mid-20th century America. For such an intrepid organization as the Society, it was a curiously domestic opening gambit, but a canny one: it and its few companion volumes (it’s possible there was one on cats as well …) proved there was a market for this kind of thing.
Much more in keeping with the wind-in-your-face nature of the Society was the fantastic 1963 volume Men, Ships and the Sea! My copy was a gift from an old friend who worked at National Geographic at the time, and the volume is so sturdy that it’s withstood decades of my frequent, loving reference and re-reading. It’s an inch taller than most of the other books Mel oversaw, and it’s got everything the nautically inclined could ever want: diagrams of different vessels, eye-popping photography of wind-driven ships braving all kinds of seas, gorgeous shots of unspoiled islands, plus all the usual digressions on great sailors, navigators, and sea-fighters of the last two thousand years. The Beagle, the Victory, the Mayflower, and of course my beloved Old Ironsides herself, the Constitution – all are given neat little tributes. And the best tribute, besides: all the ship’s cabins big and small in which I’ve found a battered copy of this volume – it may very well be one of the best-travelled books of the 20th century.
And if you’re talking about the sea, it won’t be long before you’re talking about England, the subject of the 1966 volume This England, which takes readers on a leisurely tour of the island, from London to the Cotswolds to the shires of the West country to East Anglia and through the beautiful countryside of Kent, presenting beautiful, funny, priceless photos along the way (as well as vintage National Geographic artwork by Birney Lettick). There are tributes to all the valorous English kings, tributes to all the glorious English cathedrals, and of course a tributes to Shakespeare, and it’s all swathed in a gentle glow of nostalgia for a pre-war England that was fast disappearing. Grosvenor did more than anybody to establish the magazine’s tone of nonjudgemental observation, but even so, there’s an almost sweet sadness that permeates these pages – a sadness borne out by the passage of time, since a great many parts of the England captured in this volume no longer exist even fifty years later.
The passage of time naturally rests even heavier on the 1968 volume Greece and Rome, one of the best-selling entries in the whole series. Again, Grosvenor’s approach was non-controversially straightforward: we get the Greece of Pericles and Socrates and the great dramatists, we get lovely photos of housewives taking in the Acropolis, we get the world-dominating career of Alexander the Great, we get the rise and conquests of Rome, plus stories of Pompeii, Hannibal, Spartacus, Julius Caesar, and the growing incursions of barbarians – all of it heavily illustrated, including a positive bounty of paintings by National Geographic giants like Louis Glanzman, Stanley Meltzoff, and the great Tom Lovell. No student of Greek and Roman history will find a single factual detail in this volume they didn’t already know, but they’ll be won over by the sheer warmth of the presentation – and ye gods, how invaluable the book is for the purpose of introducing a newcomer to the subject!
Much in the same vein are the two volumes that comprise the rock-solid boxed set the Society put out in 1977, The Renaissance and The Age of Chivalry: although they feature articles by some of the greatest experts then working (Roland Bainton, Paul Murray Kendall, Vincent Cronin, and half a dozen others), they cling to well-known general narratives and break no new ground, intent rather on storytelling and educating. Monks, pilgrimages, the tenacious rebirth of learning in the West, the great Renaissance figures in literature, statecraft, war, and faith – all are rehearsed again with grace and enthusiasm, accompanied by the best artwork and photography anybody was producing fifty years ago. The Renaissance volume especially is an enduring treat, full of literary excerpts and glimpses inside some of the world’s greatest museums.
There were lots of other volumes in this series (including two utterly enchanting little productions about birds), most of them now carrying the vaguely musty air that attends all old National Geographic productions. You see these old volumes at flea markets, or propping up shelves in the recesses of little used bookstores, and that sight always saddens me a bit – it’s a melancholy fate for books that still have so much wit, learning, and sheer vitality to offer readers. If you run across one (or, lucky devil, a box full) at a yard sale, pay the $5, take them home, use a moist rag to clean them off … and prepare to be very, very happy with your purchase.