A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich (2005) 284 p.

I’ve been getting more interested in history lately, and what I’ve really wanted to read is a history book that covers the entire world – focusing not on one period of time, or one geographic area, but on the entire history of the entire world. That would obviously be a daunting book both to write and to read, and wouldn’t be able to go into much depth, but even a basic analysis would do much to address the hodge-podge absorption of historical knowledge that I (and, I assume, most people) currently have.

A lot of what we know about history we obtain from popular culture, associating it with a certain set of visual motifs (fashion, architecture etc.) The 1890s I associate with London in Victorian England; the 1870s and 1880s with the American West; the early 1800s with the Napoleonic Wars and Australian early settlement, and so on. The further back, the less I know, and the more likely I am to associate a period in time with one particular piece of art or popular culture; the early 1700s, for example, is Pirates of the Caribbean, the early 1600s the plays of Shakespeare, then there’s that whole vague medieval era of knights and castles…

My point is we (or at least I) tend to associate certain time periods with certain places, and history books that focus on only one region reinforce that view. 1812, for example, was the time of Napoleon and the teething problems of American independency, but I have only a dim idea of what was occurring at the same time in Asia and Africa and India and so on. (And I know the precise date of Australia’s European settlement, but can’t even name the year for India or South Africa or even our neighbour New Zealand.) What I want is a book that slowly takes us through the ages and shows us how all these different people related to each other at the time; not just the world of the 20th century, or the history of Australia. Any decent historian, of course, knows that history isn’t about memorising dates, but rather about the way human society works and how we interact with each other. The precise date of a war is not remotely as important as why it was fought, who was fighting in it, and what people thought about it at the time.

I’m now four paragraphs in and I haven’t mentioned the book. A Little History of the World is not precisely the book I’m looking for, but it’s a good start. It covers the entire sweep of human history from paleolithic times to World War I (it was originally written in 1935) and, being aimed at children, it’s extremely readable. This recent edition has been by far the best selling book at my store over the last few months, so I figured it was worth a look.

Gombrich has an amicable, conversational style of writing, as though he was holding a child on his knee and telling them a story – and he is telling a story, because he quite clearly states in the opening chapter that that’s all history is. I was lucky enough to have an excellent history teacher in high school who was well aware of what really matters in history, rather than pushing the antiquated John Howard style of teaching, but Gombrich must have been quite the pioneer back in the 1930s. He regularly stops to point out that history is not merely a long flow of empires and political shifts, but that human society can also be greatly altered by shifts in opinion, not just in what people were thinking but in ways of thinking, and that it is a fallacy to assume that people hundreds or thousands of years ago were effectively the same as us:

If you could talk to a gentlemen from the time of the Turkish siege, there would be many things about him that would surpriseyou… but nothing could prepare you for the shock you would have if he were to begin to air his views. All children should be thrashed. Young girls (no more than children) should be married (and to men they barely know). A peasant’s lot is to toil and not complain. Beggars and tramps should be whipped and put into chains in the marketplace for everyone to mock. Thieves should be hanged and murderers publicly chopped into pieces. Witches and the other harmful sorcerers that infest the country should be burnt. People of different beliefs should be persecuted, treated as outcasts or thrown into dark dungeons… And you would hear these opinions not only from the mouth of some coarse or uncouth fellow, but from the most intelligent and pious people in all walks of life and from all nations.

Gombrich then explains the Enlightenment, which is something I had never heard of until I went to university. I consider myself to be a fairly well educated person, but Gombrich’s tale of history fleshed out my knowledge of many things which even now, as a 22-year old post-graduate, I was only vaguely aware of, including Alexander the Great, Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, and the Protestant Reformation. How wonderful it would be if our primary school students were given a broader education than all that clap-trap about Simpson’s donkey. Even high school history in this country – though it admirably teaches students about evaluating sources and taking a broader view of history than just names and dates – focuses almost entirely on the 20th century.

The book is not without its flaws; obviously it can only give a basic outline of human history, and it’s also extremely Euro-centric. That’s a term that usually means Western-centric, but even North America gets short shrift here, with only a few pages dedicated to the American Revolution and Civil War. But as I already pointed out, this is a better education than most young children get, at least in Australia. And more importantly, Gombrich’s grandfatherly voice does an excellent job of instilling a sense of wonder and imagination about the course of human history. A Little History of the World is only intended as a starting point for historical education, but it fulfills that purpose very well, whether you’re starting aged 10 or 50.

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