For Baby Boomers whose childhood dreams were of Paris and Hong Kong rather than Narnia and Hobbiton, Miroslav Šašek’s This Is picture-book series offered a magic carpet to take them there. Beginning with This Is Paris, published in 1959 by the British firm W. H. Allen, the exiled Czech artist charted an idiosyncratic, primary-color-saturated path through the mid-20th-century world. In total, he produced 18 oversize, pen-and-gouache illustrated Baedekers for the pint-size set, including This Is San Francisco, This Is Israel, and This Is the United Nations. The books were translated into many languages, including French, German, Italian, Spanish, Finnish, Korean, and Japanese. In 2003, Rizzoli reissued the first few books in the series with the seemingly fanciful idea of marketing a half-century-old set of city and country guides to the most globalized generation in history. By now, 17 of the original 18 have been reprinted. More than 1 million copies have since been sold.
Šašek’s appeal these days is mid-century retro chic: jauntily modernistic depictions of places, executed with an ethnographer’s exacting eye and the verve of the adman. To open a This Is book is to find yourself clattering down a winding, sun-toasted lane in Nazareth on the trail of a kaffiyeh-garbed man riding a donkey. Or lurching up Victoria Peak in a Hong Kong cable car, the tilt so steep that it pushes you back, thrillingly, into the wooden seat. The architectural renderings are rigorously precise: St. Paul’s Cathedral has the right number of columns, as viewed from Ludgate Hill. The whimsy is encyclopedic. Through the streets of Šašek’s Rome careen dinky trams, Vespas, taxis with luggage piled high on top, trolleybuses hooked onto electric wires, donkey-drawn carriages, and automobiles of every era and description (including a tiny one, definitely not manufactured in Detroit, that looks like one of those toy cars children pedal in their driveways).