March 11, 2006

Getting back to Gombrich: A Little History of the World

I've been meaning to write a quick review of A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich ever since our copy arrived last fall. I read about the new English-language edition from A Common Reader's online newsletter and thought it would make a dandy addition to the ever-growing shelf of narrative world histories here (see below). And while I was at it, I ordered a copy of Gombrich's Story of Art, too. Since then, the kids and I have found much to enjoy in both of Sir Ernst's books, and we've actually spent so much time with them that it took me a while to get past the draft stage with my thoughts. Chicken Spaghetti unknowingly nudged me a couple of times in the past few weeks, first with Susan's link to Scott McLemee's thoughtful and enthusiastic review for Newsday and most recently with The Guardian's children's history round-up.

E.H. Gombrich was born in Vienna in 1909; I like to think that perhaps he and my maternal grandmother, born in the same city four years earlier, might have crossed paths, perhaps at the the Opera, or at adjoining tables at the cafe, each enjoying coffee and Viennese pastries with friends. At the age of 26, with a doctorate in art history and no job offers at an already difficult time, Gombrich was asked by a publisher friend, Walter Neurath (who would go on to establish Thames & Hudson), to take a look at a new English history book for children, which the publisher was considering translating into German. Gombrich replied that he didn't think the book was worth translating and that he could probably do a better job. Fortunately for us, Neurath took him up on his offer, and A Little History was the result. But only last year was the book finally published in English, much of the task taken on by Gombrich himself before his death in 2001 at the age of 92.

Why "fortunately"? As Gombrich wrote in another edition, "I want to stress that this book is not, and never was, intended to replace any textbooks of history that may serve a very different purpose at school. I would like my readers to relax, and to follow the story without having to take notes or to memorise names and dates. In fact, I promise that I shall not examine them on what they have read."

If you, as I, believe that history textbooks, especially for young children, are generally nasty and rarely belong in the classroom or home bookshelf, Gombrich's "warning" is a very happy and welcome declaration. (I know, I know, I'm beginning to sound like a broken record about textbooks. But really, do yourself and your kids a favor and ditch them as much as you can. There are so many good books out there. Like this one.) And if my kids are anything to go by, examinations won't be needed. I know exactly how much they've absorbed from our readings by casually eavesdropping on their conversations and play.

A Little History is at once both a tiny, very elegantly crafted jewel box of a book and something much larger, a door, or I suppose rather the key, to a much vaster world. After finishing the volume, most readers will not only have a stronger than average understanding of world history through the middle of the 20th century, but should have an interest in learning more independently. Without talking down to children, or any adults who might be lucky enough to get their hands on this, Gombrich explains the history of the world from its earliest beginnings through the end of the Soviet era clearly, charmingly, wittily, conversationally, and memorably in all of only 284 pages. And leaves the door open for readers, as he does at the at the end of chapter 5 (about the ancient Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta): "I could tell you lots more about the Athenians -- about their historians and their doctors, their singers, their thinkers and their artists, but I think it would be better for you to find out about them yourself, one day. Then you'll know that I haven't exaggerated."

Fascinatingly and very cleverly, too, Gombrich refers back and forth to events to help even a child understand just how connected the history of the world is. He had a gift for both understanding and explaining world history in fairly simplified, though not simplistic, terms. In fact, for a children's book, the writing and thinking is deceptively sophisticated, able to convey elegantly and easily to youngsters such concepts as Marx and his theory of class war (chapter 36, if you don't believe me).

The final chapter, entitled "The Small Part of the History of the World Which I Have Lived Through Myself: Looking Back" contains not only Gombrich's firsthand account of World War II, but also several rather astonishing apologies and confessions of "errors" which are as much a lesson in history for the young as anything else in the book's pages. Here's just one:
One of the things I also learned was not to believe everything I read in the newspapers. I'll give you an example. Because I had lived through the First World War myself, I thought I could believe everything I had heard about it at the time. That is why the last chapter, "Dividing up the world," is not quite as impartial as I had intended. The role played by America's President Wilson was not at all what I had imagined. I described a situation in which Wilson made promised to the Germans and Austrians which he failed to keep. I firmly believed that what I remembered had to be right -- after all, it was part of my own experience -- and when I wrote about it later I just wrote down what everyone believed. But I should have checked my facts, as all historians must be especially careful to do. To cut a long story short, President Wilson did indeed make a peace offer early in 1918, but because Germany and Austria and their allies were still hoping to win the war, they ignored it. ...

Quite how serious and regrettable this error of mine was rapidly became apparent. For, although I did not foresee it, the fact that all those who had been defeated were convinced that their suffering was the result of a gross deception was very easily exploited and transformed by ambitious and fanatical agitators into a raging thirst for vengeance.
Parents may wonder how A Little History handles some standard questions -- how religion and history's brutish bits are handled in a children's book, while others might have concerns about Gombrich's unabashedly western view of world history. The subject of religion is treated fairly and respectfully; Sir Ernst, who was himself Jewish and fled to London in 1936, includes individual chapters on the establishment of the major world religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. And unlike some authors of children's history books who don't make a clear distinction between fact and fiction, story and history (the biblical story of Abraham as retold in a few history books comes to mind), Sir Ernst is much more clear and careful with his language.

The author, who lived through two world wars, certainly doesn't shy away from the violent, cruel, or evil threads that wend their way through human history, though nothing is mentioned gratuitously. Indeed, you have the sense that one of his reasons for writing this book was to help future generations learn from the mistakes of the past.

You can't read this book without knowing that Gombrich reveres the classical foundations of Western civilization or without forgetting that he was a European, and as an Austrian literally a Central European. But he is a man of compassion and conscience, who takes no sides, promotes no country, religion, or region over another. As he wrote presciently in his conclusion, several years before the tsunami of December 2004,
Among the constantly growing populations of Asia, Africa and South America the same misery reigns that, until not so long ago, was accepted as normal in our countries as well. We have no easy remedies, not least because there too, as ever, intolerance and misery go hand in hand. And yet improvements in sending information have made the consciences of richer nations a little more attentive. Whenever an earthquake, a flood or a drought in a far-off place leaves many victims, thousands of people in wealthier countries put their money and their efforts into providing relief. And that, too, used not to happen. Which proves that we still have the right to go on hoping for a better future.
This slim little volume is one of the very best of all the world histories, multi- or single volume, written for children. I have to admit here that, yes, we continue to use the Story of the World series (see below), in conjunction with A Little History, because of the depth and detail the four-volume series affords and because of the activity guide. But to help them see the forest for the trees, my kids need A Little History.

Some other narrative world history books on our shelves (not including the non-narrative Kingfisher History Encyclopedia and the Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia Of World History:

Mainly for children

The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer (four volumes)

A Child's History of the World by Virgil Hillyer (one volume)

The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, updated by John Merriman (one volume)

Mainly for adults

Outline of History by H.G. Wells (two volumes)

The New History of the World by J.M. Roberts (one volume); this is the third edition, revised in 2003. I have the old second edition, published 10 years earlier and it's stood me in good stead. (one volume)

Asimov's Chronology of the World: The History of the World from the Big Bang to Modern Times by Isaac Asimov (one volume)

The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant (11 volumes)

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