A Little History of the World

littleGombrich, E. H. (Caroline Mustill, trans.). A Little History of the World. London: Yale university Press, 2007. I have long been interested in finding readable history books that present information in a way that is both informative and entertaining. I found Gombrich’s A Little History of the World while loitering in the bookstore, and I was intrigued that I might get the whole of human history in under 300 pages. I hadn’t realized at the time that it was a children’s book.

Originally written in 1936 and for youngsters, Gombrich’s tone is often overwhelmingly patronizing; but because he seems genuinely interested in informing his audience, and genuinely excited about his subject, I could (usually) overlook the sometimes cloying style. Using short and focused chapters, Gombrich succeeds in keeping history interesting, providing enough details to paint the picture, but not so many as to drown you in minutia. As he weaves his story back and forth across the globe, Gombrich does a nice job of discussing how events in one era have ramifications for people in another.

Like any history book, this one has noticeable omissions. It is likewise heavily Euro-centric and awkwardly judgmental in some of its presentations. Other times, Gombrich flatly refuses to discuss certain issues---like the extermination of Native Americans—-not because he denies it, but because he finds it so horrible. Still, many of these ills can be overlooked as you realize that the avuncular Gombrich is struggling to decide what is and is not appropriate for younger readers. It’s a fine line to be sure; but unlike some of the approved school textbooks I was forced to read, Gombrich tends to eschew glamorizing the “great men” or engaging in excessive triumphalism. Furthermore, he occasionally provides glimpses as to how difficult determining history is, as when he discusses the Investiture Controversy (Henry IV of Germany v. Pope Gregory VII) with both sides claiming victory.

In his final chapter, written much later as part of the new edition, Gombrich reassesses what his strengths and failings are, and this candid chapter makes up for any reservations I have about this book. If you can get past the dated style, A Little History is a great refresher course in (or introduction to) who we are, while leaving enough doors open to encourage further investigation.