Tuesday, April 02, 2013

A Little History of the World (E. H. Gombrich)

With only three years of history at school, my knowledge jumps from Neolithic man to the Roundheads, Cavaliers and Cromwell, and finishes with Franz Ferdinand and the First World War. While my daughter went through a period of devouring Horrible Histories books, I struggled with their mashup of manufactured monstrosity and reality.

A Little History of the World was written by Ernst Gombrich and first published in German in 1936. The two hundred and eighty page book blasts through world history at a breakneck speed. Each chapter looks at a period or a character. The prose is anything but staid, launching into minor digressions and asking the reader questions throughout the chatty and energetic text.

Egypt, Babylon, an Athenian called Draco (from which we get the word “Draconian”), China, Muhammad, Charlemagne, knights, Popes, Columbus, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon, Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln, and lots, lots more. Gombrich also records the industrial and technological advances throughout the ages, while noting the social and political upheaval they cause.

Given the broad sweeps of history being covered – the First World War is fitted into four pages – lots of periods and places are left out. The book is unsurprisingly light on Irish history, and local readers will discover that 1690 is not remembered for the Battle of the Boyne! There is relatively little on Africa, hardly anything about South America, and the far eastern references are paltry.

Gombrich was an art historian by trade – better known for writing The Story of Art than his children’s history of the world – and moved from Vienna to London in 1936. He worked for BBC Monitoring Service, translating German radio broadcasts during the Second World War, before going back to academic life. Becoming a British citizen in 1947, he received a CBE in 1966 and was knighted in 1972.

The original manuscript was supplemented with new material when an English translation was first published in 2005, four years after Gombrich’s death. In particular, the author added a final chapter to reflect on “the history of the world which I have lived through myself”. He talks about the war from both the perspective of his adopted country as well as that of his place of birth.
One can be attached to one’s own country without needing to insist that the rest of the world’s inhabitants are worthless. But as more and more people were taken in by this sort of nonsense, the menace to peace grew greater.

For a non-historian, Gombrich’s history is accessible and a very easy book to read. It’s refreshingly not centred around the British empire and looks at Europe as a whole. For anyone wanting to revise their history and fill in a few gaps, I’d recommend a copy of this book. While originally written as a children’s book – and is certainly simple enough for good readers from aged 10 upwards, or suitable to be read to children as a series of bedtime stories – it also works well with adults!

As part of this year’s World Book Night activities on 23 April, I’ll be giving away copies of A Little History of the World.

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