Book review: “A Little History of the World” by E.H. Gombrich

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Gombrich

A Little History of the World, by E.H. Gombrich. Yale University Press, 2008. 304 pages, U$ 10.93 (www.amazon.com)

Summarizing the history of the world in one small book in a way that is accessible and interesting to children between 9 and 13 years seems like an impossible task - yet it is precisely this challenge E.H. Gombrich, an unemployed 26-year old historian in Vienna, faced in 1935. Making matters worse, the publisher asked him to finish the manuscript in six weeks. Gombrich produced a chapter a day - researching during the day, writing at night - and reading the week's results to his future wife. In a way, the book can thus be compared to a string of blog entries, written in a direct, informal and opinionated way, accessible to a broad readership.

Soon after its publication, "A Little History of the World" (originally written in German) would be banned by the Nazis for being "too pacifist." By then the author had fled Austria and settled in the United Kingdom. The success of his first book led to a commission for "The Story of Art," which sold over six million copies and was translated into over 30 languages. Gombrich's success formula was not that he uncovered formerly unknown information or reinterpreted history -- rather, he managed to turn a lot of information into something easily accessible and interesting. Indeed, "A Little History of the World" is perhaps the only book about the history of the world -- from the stone age to the 20th century -- that can be read in a day or two.

Gombrich's self-effacing style seeks to engage young readers by arguing that even he, a professional historian, still struggles to make sense of everything: For example, in the chapter about the Persia's decision to attack the Babylonians, he writes that "something very strange happened between 550 and 500 B.C. I don't really understand it myself, but perhaps that's what makes it so interesting." The author seeks to show, as often as possible, how history influenced current affairs, explaining the origin of many words such as 'democracy', 'vandalism', 'algebra', 'paper', 'duke', or the name of days of the week and months of the year.

Naturally, considering when it was written, Gombrich's book is unabashedly eurocentric. It is laudable that he includes chapters on Indian and Chinese history, but the author is clearly unimpressed by the Buddha ("not many Buddhists are able to live their lives in accordance with his teachings") or Confucius, whose teachings he describes as "obvious". The chapter describing the birth of Jesus, on the other hand, receives far more attention, and Gombrich cites several passages of the Bible. In some instances he writes with a racist undertone, arguing, for example, that "the plebeians in Rome, unlike the gentle Indians, didn't willingly submit". Furthermore, Gombrich's account is at times marked by views on gender that today would be regarded as unacceptable. In his chapter about knights, he writes that women at the time "were not as hardened to discomfort as the men." "A Little History of the World" is thus not an actual history of the world, but a history of Western civilization from a Western early 20th century point of view -- similarly to Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy, which, despite its universal title, is actually about diplomacy in the West.

Still, Gombrich's book is useful not only for children interested in history, but also for scholars interested in learning how to reach non-academic readers. The style of "A Little History of the World", a children's book, would of course be inadequate even for a modern non-academic writing, yet what impresses is Gombrich's capacity to summarize very broad swaths of history without sounding overly superficial or descriptive. To the contrary, Gombrich's book is full of strong opinions, many of which have been fiercely criticized, and Andrew Roberts wrote in the Financial Times that it "ought to be kept well away from schools" due to the author's supposed sympathies with Marxism -- a somewhat spurious claim based on Gombrich's detailed description of workers' suffering during the Industrial Revolution and his entirely correct condemnation of imperialism. 

Equally important, Gombrich successfully avoids making his text feel like a Wikipedia entry or a textbook used in school. After all, his book is not meant to help readers memorize dates, but appreciate the importance of history and take an active interest in it -- ideally, this is what textbooks should do as well. As Gombrich once said: "I would like my readers to relax, and to follow the story without having to take notes or to memorize names and dates." The book mixes history with poignant personal observations -- for example, he apologizes to the reader about having to introduce the cruelties of the 20th century, explaining that knowing about them is essential to avoid them in the future. Similarly, he laments the blood spilled in the name of faith over the past centuries, and tries to convince the reader that, despite writing about so much war and destruction, it is still worth to be optimistic about the future.

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