Picks and Pans Review: The Great American Magazine

updated 02/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Loudon Wainwright

The Kunhardt book, which contains more than 5,000 photographs, amply demonstrates how and why LIFE Magazine, founded in 1936, has made such an impact on American society. Wainwright's volume explains how and why the people who have created that magazine so often seem to talk about it with a mixture of reverence and passion, like veterans of a battered but victorious army telling their war stories. Life: The First 50 Years (Little, Brown, $50) includes reproductions of every cover of the magazine—most of them postage-stamp size—with year-by-year summaries of signal events. Many articles are also printed in reduced size, but most arresting are the photographs, many of which still generate a fresh fascination even when they are as familiar as Robert Capa's coverage of the invasion of Normandy, or the home-movie footage of the assassination of President Kennedy. Like Kunhardt, Wainwright was a top editor of the weekly LIFE, which was folded in 1972 (Wainwright now writes a column for the monthly incarnation of the magazine, which Kunhardt edited from 1978 to 1982). The Great American Magazine (Knopf, $19.95) is a colorful portrait of the weekly, far more balanced than might be expected from a man who was as attached to it as Wainwright obviously was. He doesn't, for instance, gloss over the eccentricities of the magazine's founder, Henry Luce, whose personality, Wainwright writes, reflected a "canny, sometimes inspired grandiosity." There is also a discussion of LIFE'S controversial purchase of the exclusive rights to the personal stories of the original seven astronauts for $500,000—a project in which Wainwright himself was involved. There's an acknowledgment too of the magazine's range of subject matter, from an enduring preoccupation with starlets to enterprising studies in science and history. Most affecting is Wainwright's ability to communicate his own feelings for the magazine. Someday someone may write a more comprehensive history of LIFE and its role in the popular culture, but nobody will ever write a book that describes more eloquently the triumphs, frustrations and joys of journalism.

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