Wednesday’s Book Review: “A Little History of the World”

A Little History of the World. By E.H. Gombrich. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985 ed.

When A Little History of the World first appeared in 1942 it caused quite a stir. It was viewed as an excellent introduction to world history; an accessible narrative that could be rewarding for readers of all stages. I suppose by the standards of the early 1940s it might be considered an appropriate short, general history. By the standards of the early twenty-first century, however, it is far removed from acceptability.

I don’t want to be unfair in my assessment, so let me point out some of its strengths. The author writes in a very informal manner, and this is quite effective for younger readers. The use of slang, at least slang common in the 1940s, is present at points in the narrative and perhaps that helped a bit with communication. It also attempts to tell the story of humans around the world so it moves from Europe, by far the emphasis in the book, to Asia, to America, to Africa, and back. It is a tall order to successfully incorporate all of these threads of the narrative together, and Gombrich does this relatively well.

But there are troubling aspects to this book as well, prompting me to question its use as a general history in the 21st century, even as it might have been a pathbreaker when first published. First, it overemphasizes the European experience at the expense of other aspects of the story. While there are chapters on Asian developments and some in America and Africa as well, those other regions get far less attention than to my mind they deserve. I would think that this has something to do with the fact of European hegemony throughout much of the World at the time that Gombrich wrote this book. In reality he seemed to view global developments through the lens of a European, albeit a very cosmopolitan and broadminded European.

Second, the emphasis throughout the book is on the story of princes and leaders, kings and warriors, principalities and nations. It’s not that this should not be included in this story, but I was surprised that there seemed to be such little effort to discuss large social issues, etc. He did write about the rise and decline of feudalism, the Enlightenment and the age of revolution that followed, and Karl Marx and his ideas on utopia, so that is a plus but he rarely got into an analysis of everyday life and styles. I failed to see virtually any influence of the Annales school of history, even though it was well established in Europe when Gombrich wrote his work. That school, led in the pre-WWII era by Lucien Febre (1878–1956) and Marc Bloch (1886–1944) emphasized social rather than political, military, or diplomatic themes and led to a revolution in understanding about the past.

Finally, trends that we would now call “transnational,” especially colonialism, have little place in this volume. Even more troubling, such persistently embarrassing themes as racism and slavery receive virtually no sustained discussion. If such issues are not important and defining themes in the history of the world, even as they are decidedly difficult to deal with, I don’t know what is.

In sum, there are praiseworthy elements of this history, but also several areas where it is less useful than I would have liked. If I were teaching a global history course this is not a book that I would use.

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