Saturday, January 24, 2004


Edited by Benedikt Taschen

Taschen, $3,000, 792 pages, illus.


Picture a 75-pound box of candy wrapped in white and pink silk. That’s how the past 60 years of Muhammad Ali’s life have been layered into this book, some kind of cross between a Valentine and an atlas.

That Mr. Ali is worthy seems beyond question nowadays. His Olympic gold, his world-champion titles, his courage of conviction and his unstoppably brash charm all pile up to make him bigger than life. He fought 46 times, including several comebacks, on his way to being one of the most famous people in the world and one of the most photographed ever.

Each memento in this heartfelt scrapbook — every fight poster, front-row ticket stub and magazine cover — was originally saved for its outlandish, over-the-top appeal, just like the man himself. Three thousand images are gorgeously printed here across 792 gilt-edged pages, the biggest measuring 80 inches by 20 inches. Twin, double-page foldouts will take over any coffee table and most of the sofa, too.

Mr. Ali’s face often appears at twice life-size, alternating from handsome to sweaty to very loud-mouthed. His hands alone, even when they curl into fists, remain colossal. After all, an undisputed world heavyweight boxing champ can tower over the rest of the human race physically and, provided that he is an honorable man, in spirit as well.

The drawback is that this record-breaking book offers little in the way of narrative pacing. In a life that has held considerable struggle and pain and plenty to think about, the contributors have stuck with repeating the “I am the greatest!” moment far too often.

German publisher Benedikt Taschen has bitten off this massive tribute and titled it “Greatest Of All Time” (or “GOAT” for short). From the beginning, Mr. Taschen wanted “GOAT” to be seen as “the most comprehensive piece of work ever done on anybody in the history of mankind, period.”

Naturally, we see the champ with Elvis, the Beatles and Nelson Mandela. Also piling onto the free-for-all are contributors Howard Cosell, Elliott Erwitt, Philippe Halsman, Yousuf Karsh, William Klein, Jeff Koons, Annie Leibowitz, Neil Leifer, Danny Lyon, Norman Mailer, Leroy Neiman, Gordon Parks, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Andy Warhol, Bruce Weber and Tom Wolfe.

The reaction of most people seeing the $3,000 book in person for the first time is a smile of stunned disbelief. Obviously, no expense has been spared. The leather for the binding came from Louis Vuitton. For those who want something truly special, including signed prints and a companion sculpture by Mr. Koons, there is also the Champ’s Edition for $7,500.

Admittedly, there is logic and beauty to this milestone in publishing history. If the Taj Mahal or the Great Pyramid of Cheops had been scaled back to the size of, say, a three-bedroom house, they would never rise above the vanity that lies inside them. The same goes for the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower. If either had been built to sit comfortably in a small town square, neither would today deserve a special visit.

Not all things, however, get better simply by being bigger. The best desserts, for instance, are short and sweet.

What any book does best, compared to other media, is to offer intimacy and a sense of escape. It can offer companionship, ownability. A cherished book can join you in your favorite chair or let you curl up with it in bed. (Portability is implied here.) The best-loved books make you hope that they will never end. But instead of a floating, prizefighting butterfly of a book, Mr. Taschen has created one that is more fit for a sumo wrestler.

For just a taste, try out Norman Mailer’s bloated discussion of Muhammad Ali’s ego: “There are languages other than words, languages of symbol and languages of nature. There are languages of the body. And prizefighting is one of them.

“There is no attempting to comprehend a prizefighter unless we are willing to recognize that he speaks with a command of the body which is as detached, subtle and comprehensive in its intelligence as any exercise of mind by such social engineers as Herman Kahn or Henry Kissinger.”

Or, by contrast, George Plimpton brought another perspective: “Ali, who is handling the interior decoration himself, has a particular obsession with glass light fixtures, especially chandeliers. Each room has a chandelier, often two of them, with their own rheostats so that the light, reflected and shining off the countless pendants, can be adjusted to best effect.

“Ali bought almost all of them in Miami, a wide variety of sizes and shapes, invariably delicate rather than massive, though some of them reach halfway to the floor. Visitors must crouch under or step around these … As Ali conducts his tour he flicks on the chandelier in each room, starting the light low with the rheostat control and then blazing it up full power to try to extract a gasp from his tour group.”

After enjoying this book for the first time, the hypothetical proud owner will be hard pressed to find a place for it. Forget about having a bookshelf strong enough or big enough to hold it, so that it can wait patiently for some future impulse to crack open the slip case.

This book is also crying out for a more revealing sense of honesty. There is almost always a high degree of self-consciousness in front of the camera, most annoyingly in the pictures by Neil Leifer taken at Mr. Ali’s home on pages 508-511. The champ’s powerful charisma and impact on the opposite sex come into evidence with only one small picture from Thomas Hoepker on page 444. One of the very rare pictures of Mr. Ali on the mat comes from an anonymous United Press International photographer on page 475.

Moments of doubt and fear and physical failure do not diminish a person, especially one of Mr. Ali’s stature, and for the sake of contrast and drama these should have occupied a large share of the pages. Mr. Ali’s wife and his manager made a foolish mistake by trimming out all of the bad light or any description of weakness from the 600,000 words assembled here.

There’s certainly no need to sugarcoat Mr. Ali’s life story. That the champ must still struggle with Parkinson’s Disease would make a much more powerful image than one more picture to make us say, “My, oh my, doesn’t he still look good?” How will a child be impressed by a hero who makes everything seem too easy?

With a press run of 10,000 copies that can only be stitched together at a rate of a few hundred each week, “GOAT” had been designed to become the biggest, most costly book ever published. In just a few weeks, unfortunately, the Sultan of Brunei delivered a knock-out to Taschen’s title with a new Biggest and Most Expensive Book ever, being a 5-foot-wide volume celebrating landscapes from his oil-soaked kingdom.

J. Ross Baughman, an educator, author and Pulitzer Prize winner, serves as Director of Photography at The Washington Times.

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