Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: A Little History of the World by E.H.Gombrich

A Little History of the WorldA Little History of the World by Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that's been waiting on my shelves for me to read it for years. I picked it up for an overall view of history, and some idea of cause and effect. I did know, going in, that there would be flaws, and I found them. But I also got what I expected out of it: a simplified view of world history, and how it got us to the 20th century.

The book starts with some speculation about pre-historic humanity. Now, the book was originally published in 1936, so its views are almost a century old. But it needed to start somewhere, and I can't fault its choice, nor that the author was working with what he had.

The book is not only Euro-centric, Gombrich is German. Most of the history centers around Germany, Austria, Italy, and France. There are tidbits of information about China, though Japan isn't mentioned until the 18th century.

The jarring part of the book, for a former student of American history, is how little America plays a part. It warrants a mention here, a brief reference there. Overall, though, America's role in this book is a small one, and not particularly flattering. A person raised in the notion (one I don't wholly agree with) that the US is the center of the world might feel let down by the book.

Also surprising is that the author is aware of colonialism's detrimental effects, though he doesn't call it that word. He references the atrocities committed on native inhabitants, and openly admires Japan for stealing all it can of European culture, then booting the Western world out. His last major reference point is WWI, and doesn't hesitate to describe the events leading up to it as greedy land grabs by the European nations.

There is an afterword, where he corrects a statement in the final chapter of the original, and discusses WWII, Hitler, and the Holocaust. Gombrich, himself, fled Germany, because he has Jewish ancestry.

The book does have its blind spots. As I mentioned, it focuses on Europe, with only minor references to other parts of the world. India's only role is to be conquered by Alexander the Great, while China's contribution is, evidently, Confucius and gunpowder. Even the northern parts of Europe are dismissed.

It also has a Christian-centric view, treating the rise of the Catholic Church and later of Martin Luther as important historical points. While these did leave a mark on history, I don't agree with the author that it was a positive one.

All-in-all, I thought this makes a good place for younger readers to start learning about history, and to give them reference points for any other study of history they may be interested in. It turns it into more of a story than a dry account of battles and kings, though it has those, as well. The language and wording are appropriate for anyone eight years old and up.

I found myself wishing, as I read, that this had been my introduction to world history. Flawed as it is, it's a lot more interesting, and it shows the relationships between events much better than anything I read in school.

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