Imagine reading an issue of BookPage—in fact, reading all the books reviewed—in a volume the size of a matchbox. Then imagine reading even tinier illustrated books—not just the best-known poems of Shakespeare, but his entire folio. Now imagine reading something so small that it requires a microscope.
Simon Garfield, whose previous book explored the creation and variety of movable type fonts, turns his relaxed, fireside-chatty tone (and a sprinkling of puns) to the human fascination with not size, but scale. In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World is a charming collage of historical vignettes and commentary, wandering from tiny volumes and flea circuses to miniature railroads, both the hugely commercial layouts and the private escapes of such enthusiasts as Rod Stewart, Neil Young and Roger Daltrey (rock stars and railroading—who knew?).
Model villages—and the single-minded artists who created them—are monuments to imagination (Chinese human hair is used for roof thatching) and sheer doggedness (a one-inch clematis vine features 201 minuscule leaves). A photo of then-Princess Elizabeth towering over her future domain at Bekonscot Model Village is oddly gripping—her face is presciently grave, as war has not come to either Bekonscot or Britain.
Garfield has a particular fascination with the Eiffel Tower, which appears throughout the book in various forms and sizes, from a man-size toothpick model and the half-sized tower in Las Vegas to the merely 76-foot version in Walt Disney World, plus dozens of others around the globe. They are designed to, as Garfield puts it, “shrink the world.” But while the 1889 view from nearly 1,000 feet up gave some visitors an almost celestial vision of the city of boulevards and cathedrals, others found their own “shrinking” somewhat disorienting. Art critic Robert Hughes compared the experience to the first view of Earth from the moon, but do we become greater or tinier? Is that an issue of size, or of scale?
And is there a reason why the pharaohs of ancient Egypt buried hundreds of miniature statuettes in their tombs to serve them in the afterlife, while the Emperor Qin had more than 8,000 life-size warriors and cavalry buried in his? Conviction or mere convenience? Weigh that on your philosophical scale.