Thursday, 15 October 2009

A Little History of the World

Title: A Little History of the World 
Author: E.H. Gombrich, translated by Caroline Mustill 

A Little History of the World is an entertaining account of the history of the world aimed at young readers, though the title is slightly misleading. The book starts at a point before history was born, a time with 'no names and no dates'.Another misleading aspect is that this book is more a 'little history of the world as seen from a European perspective' than a book that encompasses the history of the whole planet. In the preface, Gombrich's grandchild Leonie explains that in the English version of the book (the original German text was published in 1936, but it was only translated into English in 2005) E.H. Gombrich 'made corrections' and 'added new information' on sections such as the prehistoric man and Chinese history. However, even with all the new passages, the focus is still very much Eurocentric. For example Chapters 9 and 12 are devoted to the Ancient Greeks and how they 'went on to be the bearers of the greatest intellectual force there has ever been': Gombrich gushingly extols Ancient Greeks' creativity and their values for 'beauty and humanity':
The Acropolis still contains the most beautiful buildings we know. Not the grandest, or the most splendid. Simply the most beautiful. [...] Both wisdom of thought and beauty of form were to be united by the Athenians in a third art: the art of poetry. And here, too, they invented something new: the theatre.
All this is acceptable, but when he writes about Ancient Asian civilizations like China, he barely remarks about their great inventions. When he does discuss the inventions of Ancient China, for example, they are only denigrated:
It had long been known in China [...] that you could rub black ink on carved wood and then press it on paper. But Gutenberg's invention was different.
However, another invention of the time was to have an even greater impact on the world. This was gunpowder. Once again, the Chinese had probably known about it for a long time, but they mostly used it to make fireworks. It was in Europe, from 1300 onwards, that people began to use it in cannons for shooting at fortresses and men.
The sentence structure "it had been known ... but" really weakens the subject matter (of Chinese inventions), and Gombrich used it more than once.To be fair, it cannot be expected that a book of less than 300 pages would be able to describe all the amazing ideas and thoughts from ancient times to the early 20th century. However, it is not too demanding to expect the same kind of treatment and space to be given to important aspects of non-European history. China was just one small example - there is hardly a mention of African or South American history either.With this in mind, A Little History of the World is still a good introduction that would easily captivate a young reader's mind to history, but it would be more accurate to title the text as A Little History of the Eurocentric World.