A little history of the world

E. H. Gombrich

Why I looked at this book

When I saw this book I was rather intrigued - how well can a book like this deal with all of world history? I would hope that reading it improves my knowledge of some of the areas of history that I've had little knowledge of beforehand. It looks very much as if it is aimed at children, but that should mean that it won't be too difficult to read.

First impressions

In the introduction we find that the original, German, version was written in the space of 6 weeks, emphasising that this is not going to be a typical textbook. (It was quite a while though before the English translation appeared).

The first few chapters are clearly aimed at children, in fact I thought then somewhat patronizing, but I guess I can put up with that. They were also a bit slow going - more of a problem if the history of the world is to be squeezed into the book - but maybe that will improve as it goes on. I'll have to see.

Main review

I felt that the pace of the book did improve as it went on, and by about half way through it got to Charlemagne, having had a couple of chapters about China as well as dealing with the Roman empire, the rise of Islam, and quite a bit more. Not quite the whole world, but doing pretty well. After that though its focus narrow a lot, and at one stage seems to be predominantly about the religious disagreements between the German states and the Vatican. That brings us to the 17th century about ¾ of the way through the book. Of course there is no way to pack much of the history of the world after that into the last ¼ of the book, but it does reasonably well in dealing with the French revolution, the industrial revolution and the run up to the 1st World War.

The author tries not to get too serious about his subject, but sometimes I thought this was detrimental to the history. For instance, Henry VIII divorced his first wife, and beheaded his second. We find that he married a third 11 days later, but she "died before he could have her executed". Amusing, but it seems more likely that if Jane Seymour had lived Henry would have the wife he wanted - the picture he had painted a few years later certainly suggests this.

One thing I found strange about this book is that although it was written for children, it doesn't seem to be put in the children's section of bookshops and libraries. I think I understand why now - adults may find a rather quaint and old fashioned book like this an appealing way to read about history, but for children it doesn't really match the educational requirements for a history book.

So was it worth reading? Yes if you want to learn quite a bit of history without too challenging a read. But I wouldn't expect too much from it.

Reviews Elsewhere

Most of the Amazon Reviews are positive, with many liking the way that history is told in the way you might read a story to a child. The Goodreads reviews are also positive, but the 4 star reviews have the edge here.
The Post Western World review looks at some of the benefits of presenting history in this way. while this New York Times article has an interesting discussion of how the book came to be written (and translated).