My tiny little complaint about “In Miniature?” It’s too tiny.
Simon Garfield, whose book is subtitled “How Small Things Illuminate the World,” casts a broad net in “In Miniature,” which tells just a little about the models created by late architect Zaha Hadid, those tiny replicas of Eames chairs you can buy in art museum gift shops, crime scene models, an elaborate dollhouse at Windsor Castle and the set designs for last year’s Broadway production of “Angels in America.” And yes, I have heard that old edict about “leave them wanting more.” But I wanted lots more.
It’s Garfield’s own fault for being such a sharp guide. And, truthfully, it may be only the topics I’m heavily invested in that seemed to come up short, with Hadid and “Angels” as examples. Garfield mentions models in those chapters, but, contradicting the book’s subtitle, he seems more interested in the big things that sprang from them instead of: How did Hadid and her staff create her models? How long did it take? What do they look like?
The issue is that “In Miniature” is about a lot of subjects, linked by littleness. Garfield’s other breezy nonfictions were more narrowly focused: “Mauve” delivered on the promise of its braggy subtitle, “How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World.”
“On the Map” could support a similar subtitle, so convincing is Garfield’s argument that maps don’t just illustrate our world; they help create it. And every single set-in-Sabon word of Garfield’s “Just My Type: A Book About Fonts” is an absolute delight.
Mostly, “In Miniature” is delightful, too. Garfield captures the awe of early Eiffel Tower visitors who were startled by how it diminished their world, and who purchased miniature versions so they could hang onto the memory. He gets serious in a chapter that convincingly argues that models of slave ships helped end slavery in England. And he’s deft at witty takedowns, as in a description of a Belgian tourist attraction called Mini-Europe that is exactly what it sounds like, except horrible.
“It is almost invulnerable to humanity, making you long for the idiosyncrasies of almost anywhere else,” Garfield deadpans. “About 300,000 people visit it annually.”
His skepticism returns for a chapter about those who print entire books the size of pebbles, seemingly just because they can, asking, “Is there any point to the miniaturisation of books beyond the challenge itself? And the follow-up may be: Were these volumes, at their core, fundamentally stupid?”
Usually, though, Garfield is Team Tiny. His clever, affectionate prose is a pleasure, never more than in the early pages of the book in which he lays out why he thinks small things illuminate our big world: “The toys we enjoy as children invest us with a rare power at a young age, conferring the potency of adults, and possibly giants.”
Throughout our lives, Garfield argues, little things have great power: as signs of wealth, portable remembrances of loved ones, ways to gain control of things too large to comprehend, a means of teaching, or simply because they’re wondrous objects that “never fail to surprise you.”
Chris Hewitt is a theater critic and features writer at the Star Tribune.
By: Simon Garfield.
Publisher: Atria Books, 323 pages, $25