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

I remember seeing A Little History of the World when it was released and wanting to check it out. But I had a gazillion other things to read and have been trying to cut back on my book buying.  Some time later I came across it at a deeply discounted price on the Kindle so I picked it up.

I took me awhile even then to get around to reading it. Having done so I can say that it lived up to its billing.  It really is a wonderfully little survey of history written for young readers but with plenty to enjoy for older ones.

In forty concise chapters, Gombrich tells the story of man from the stone age to the atomic bomb. In between emerges a colorful picture of wars and conquests, grand works of art, and the spread and limitations of science. This is a text dominated not by dates and facts, but by the sweep of mankind’s experience across the centuries, a guide to humanity’s achievements and an acute witness to its frailties.

For those unfamiliar, the book itself has an interesting history:

In 1935, with a doctorate in art history and no prospect of a job, the 26-year-old Ernst Gombrich was invited by a publishing acquaintance to attempt a history of the world for younger readers. Amazingly, he completed the task in an intense six weeks, and Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser was published in Vienna to immediate success, and is now available in seventeen languages across the world.

Toward the end of his long life, Gombrich embarked upon a revision and, at last, an English translation. A Little History of the World presents his lively and involving history to English-language readers for the first time.

Two things to keep in mind when reading: this is not in any way an academic history, nor is it a particularly detailed one, and the story is told from European perspective.

What it provides is a great bird’s eye view of the sweep of history; the story of history across the ages. For young readers, and anyone seeking to get a grasp of the arc of history, this is a valuable thing.  And it is done with a simple yet engaging style that makes it not only readable but enjoyable – which is the very thing which inspires learning.

Of course, it goes without saying that anyone with a strong multiculturalist, Marxist or other type of anti-Western ideology will probably not enjoy it. Grombrich brings an avowed attachment to the values and ideals of the Enlightenment and from a pre-world war perspective. He is very much of the Athens-Rome-Jerusalem view and doesn’t try to hide it.  And is possible to appreciate and be open to the insights of this worldview even as you understand that it is a worldview; and one connected to a time and place different from our own.

The final chapter, added for this edition, tries to capture the tragic  bitterness that came with the wars of the twentieth century but manages to insist on a sort of cautious optimism. Whether this is warranted it up to the reader to decide.

In my opinion, there is plenty of time later (for young readers in particular) for cynicism and the unpacking of historiography that makes up any study of history.  Getting a handle on the scope and outline of events and ideas as presented here is a valuable and enjoyable first step.  And a reminder that we should lose the joy of this type of history even if we later dig deeper and explore in a more academic way.

So I am happy I stumbled on the Kindle edition and heartily recommend this fine volume in any format to readers young and old.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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