People, Places and Things
GEOFFREY GRIGSON & CHARLES HARVARD GIBBS-SMITH
A series of books epitomizing the tastes, achievements
and aspirations of mankind. All volumes have 16 colour
plates, 160 pages of illustrations in black and white, and
upwards of 200,000 words of text
People, Places, Things & Ideas* is a four-volume compendium of essays, each volume covering one of the same four categories of stuff as Everything2 did for the first eight years of its existence. Like Everything2, it is not quite an encyclopaedia in the normal sense - it embraces subjectivity and stories; though it's never short on facts, it doesn't make them the be all and end all of its existence. At the start of the first volume we are warned not to expect '...a book of reference or a biographical dictionary. The approach is less neutral. We intended rather, to illustrate the delightful diversity of mankind...'
First published in London by the Waverley Book Company Limited in 1954, People, Places, Things & Ideas saw great success in its day, achieving something close to ubiquity and a fond place in the hearts and bookshelves of many who were alive at that time. Alas, it doesn't seem to have seen a new print since 1957; abandoned early by the publishers, it is slowly fading from the collective memory of the world, although a good many copies still survive, gathering dust in book-cases around the world.
The books are a little smaller than A4 sized, and satisfyingly solid at about 470 pages apiece. Each volume came with a dust-jacket displaying a full colour print of a painting representative of its subject; the same illustrations are reproduced inside the covers, and a portion is made out in relief on the front of the hard cover. Between thirty and sixty-three contributors are credited for each book. Every entry is headed by a few words of what could be called flavour text, giving some kind of a laconic summary or a hint at the nature of the subject: 'Man and Leviathan' for Thomas Hobbes, 'City of catacombs' for Odessa, 'Reversing Babel' for universal language; many, but by no means all, are accompanied by prints - works of art interspersed with occasional documentary photographs.
A volume of the good, bad, great & eccentric who illustrate the admirable diversity of Man
Running from Lord Acton ("Acton the severe" - "English historian and scholar, remembered most frequently for his famous generalization 'All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely'") through to Francisco de Zurbaran ("Monk and skull" - "Spanish painter of the sombre ecstasies of the monastic life"), the first volume covers a huge range of important people, concentrating chiefly on the 'modern age' (which is to say, from the time of St. Augustine to its publication in 1954). Each entry, averaging about half a page in length, gives outline biographical details along with an overview of the person's work, representative quotes and anecdotes which aim to illustrate them as human beings. The prints, too (roughly one for every six entries) are chosen as illustrations of character, and try to avoid hackneyed portraits which reveal little of a person. The endpapers are of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Mount St Bernard in 1800, by Jacques-Louis David: The classic portrait of Napoleon on his horse, a deadly serious look on his face, finger pointed purposefully onwards and upwards.
A volume of travel in space and time - places which have delighted intrigued and intimidated men
The covers of the second volume are adorned by Canaletto's vista of The Bucentaur at The Piazzetta - the state barge of Venice, all red and gold and grandiose, in a busy canal scene, gondolas punting from place to place as flags fly and crowds mill in the background. Running from Abbasanta ('Castle of the Bronze Age') through to Zons (a small, walled town on the western bank of the Rhine, hardly touched by the Twentieth Century in 1954), Places aims to give a feeling for the locations it describes, not to act as a reference book: 'Contributors have been asked for impressions and reactions, with only a sufficient strengthening of the facts. All the facts, all the dates, all the architectural details, all the old stories, and a statistical abstract of imports and exports - these would belong to impersonal guidebooks or to histories of art or to textbooks of geography which are still more impersonal.'
A volume about the origin and early history of many things, common and less common, essential and inessential
Things runs from the aeolian harp through to the zip-fastener by way of gramophones, glass eyes and gunpowder. On its covers, miniature figures and antiques jostle for space on a turn-of-the-Eighteenth-Century Swiss cabinet. The essays - which for the most part run to a page or more - focus above all on the history of objects. We learn, for instance, that the artificial limb occurs in literature as early as Herodotus, who tells of a man named Hegesistratus who cut off his foot to escape execution and limped for thirty miles before having himself fitted with a wooden foot; we learn that the oldest surviving specimen of an artificial limb is a metal leg found in Capua, about 2,300 years old, and that remarkably sophisticated prosthetic hands were in use in 15th and 16th-Century Europe. We learn that the motor-car, too, has a longer history than one might imagine, with the first mechanically-operated road vehicle being built in 1769. Although the first of these steam cars didn't go far, with too-breakable parts and constant boiler troubles, steam cars continued to appear and utilise ever more reliable machinery, so that by 1831 Walter Hancock was running a regular road service by steam vehicle. These are the sorts of forgotten details that Things delights in, and it's hard not to be infected by its enthusiasm.
A volume of ideas, living, dying, dead & fossil, which we are moved by or were moved by
The fourth volume runs from the Absolute through to Yoga, taking in a hundred and eighty-one other concepts, ruminations and imaginings on the way. Once again, the tone aims to be informative but informal: 'No less than earlier volumes, we hope this one, designed not to be too solemn, or too academic, not to be an encyclopaedia nor yet to be trivial, will give its readers entertainment as well as information.' It doesn't disappoint; the essays are engaging and enlightening, if often old-fashioned. They are longer than in any other book in the series, as is the list of contributors. The prints chosen to illustrate the ideas have a good deal of charm, from the portraits of Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling at their desks representing imperialism to the photograph of a border crossing in divided Vienna which illustrates the recently-instituted Iron Curtain, a sign proclaiming 'You are now entering the American Zone' in huge capital letters marking the divide. On the covers, some of the great thinkers of the ancient world debate, declaim and discourse in Raphael's School of Athens. At the centre of it all, Plato holds forth before a rapt audience.
* Mysteriously, inside the books themselves (as in the text reproduced at the top of this writeup) the title is consistently given as just 'People, Places and Things' (even in the Ideas volume), with a little 'PPT' logo. The front covers, however, include all four categories in the title. I have seen both names used by internet book sellers.