Picks and Pans Review: The American Magazine

updated 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Amy Janello and Brennon Jones

The reviewer of this book is an award-winning journalist who served as a PEOPLE editor from the magazine's inception in 1974 to his retirement in 1982:

Having labored half my life at the task of putting out a magazine (the weekly LIFE, PEOPLE), I read the title of this book with skepticism, and one word flashed into my mind: smattering. Can one sumptuously illustrated book do justice to 250 years of magazine publishing? Just to name them all would take scores of pages—from Andrew Bradford's American Magazine, which beat Ben Franklin's General Magazine to the punch by three days in 1741, to the arty Egg, which Malcolm Forbes hatched in 1990 and which laid its own egg in 1991. The illustrated roll call here is long and lively and includes many ghosts: Leslie's, Puck, Show, Holiday, Ranch Romances....

What changed my mind about that "smattering" is not the inclusiveness of the book's extensive chronological tables or the gorgeousness of its 575 illustrations, which of course include hundreds of covers, of every kind of magazine. The thing that makes this art book work as a history is eight chapters of telling text by top-notch magazine writers and editors. The essays cover the functions of magazines: informing, storytelling, pleasing the eye, nourishing the spirit, conveying and explicating the news. (In the face of a steady assault by muckraking magazines, one essay notes, "The federal government took revenge in 1917 by raising postal rates for magazines.") Eight pictorial sections are devoted to such subjects as the cover, women's magazines, illustration, the departmental format and an amusing four pages on the shifting depictions of Richard Nixon on covers over nearly 40 years (Nixon as Pinocchio; Nixon's face outlined in lengths of audiotape, spools for eyes...).

I've been trying to think of an omission. I've finally thought of one. The New Hampshire Troubadour of the '30s. Loved that mag. (Abrams, $60)

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