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Reading Timed for the New Century

July 11, 1999|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The countdown to the new millennium began . . . well, shortly after the last one ended. But the subject didn't really begin attracting much popular interest until just a few years ago, when fears of a worldwide computer meltdown focused attention on calendars, time-keeping and the passage of time in general.

But in many quarters, the discussion seems to have raised more questions than it has answered. For example, does the millennium begin this New Year's or next? Where will the new century officially begin and why won't everyone be celebrating it? The answers to those puzzles, along with dozens of other interesting facts, fill "The Story of Clocks and Calendars: Marking a Millennium" by Betsy Maestro, and illustrated by Giulio Maestro (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 48 pages, $16), a fascinating book that has something for readers of all ages.

The Maestros cover a wide range of complicated time-themed topics in a straightforward manner, tracing the history of time-keeping from the earliest bone "calendar sticks" to today's atomic clocks, which measure time by counting the regular vibrations--more than 9 billion a second--in atoms of cesium.

And by the way, to answer the first question above, the new millennium won't officially begin until 2001. Because there is no zero in Roman numerals, there never was a year 0 on the Gregorian calendar, which began with the year AD 1. To answer the other questions, you'll have to read the book. It will be time well spent.

And if you're wondering how best to celebrate the end of the millennium, you might start by simply picking up a book. The last time we welcomed a millennium, books were rare and valuable; many people passed their whole lives without ever seeing one. In fact, paper was then unknown in England--which was called Angle-land--and sundials were used to tell time, although few people knew or cared what month or year it was.

Daily experiences such as these come to life in "Turn of the Century," (by Ellen Jackson; illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis; Charlesbridge; 28 pages; $17.95), a provocative time-traveling book for elementary and middle-school readers. The author has collected intriguing historical data from the opening year of each century since 1,000, facts she lists and brings alive by weaving them into a short tale about the daily life of 11 children from different time periods. Readers will be transported back 1,000 years to life with 10-year-old John, who shares a two-room hut of mud, straw and animal hair with his family's pigs, chickens and cows, and owns only the clothes on his back--which were handed down from his grandfather.

But while Jackson was content to look back in time, scientists, explorers and academics through the centuries have generally preferred to look forward. And while their styles and predictions differed, the Greeks' Oracle at Delphi, Mayan astrologers, the French physician Nostradamus and the Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci all seemed to have the unique ability to correctly predict the future.

San Diego writer Kathleen Krull introduces middle-school readers to these remarkable people and their predictions in "They Saw the Future: Oracles, Psychics, Scientists, Great Thinkers and Pretty Good Guessers" (illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker; Atheneum; 108 pages; $19.99).

The ability to see the future isn't the only thing these prophets share, however: While they were alive, many saw them as quacks or satanic beings and they were subject to ridicule and imprisonment. But many of their predictions have stood the test of time. And there are many more in Krull's book that may soon come to pass.

Kevin Baxter can be reached by e-mail at socalliving@latimes.com.

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