A Little History of the World

I enjoy trivia of all sorts, so when a friend loaned me his copy of E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, I gladly dove into many hours of fascinating reading.

A Little History of the World is a compact volume that tells us the story of mankind, from the Stone Age to the atomic bomb. Told as stories, it’s simple enough for young readers to understand without getting the feeling of being patronized, and entertaining enough for adults who have already gone through years of history classes.

Gombrich, an art historian (you may recognize the name from the book The Story of Art), wrote this book in 1935 with the intention of presenting a history of the world for younger readers. The book was actually originally written in German, was banned by the Nazis for being too “pacifist,” and was only translated in English by Gombrich himself (mostly, reportedly, but the book credits his assistant Caroline Mustill as the translator) towards the end of his life (he died in 2001, at 92, still working on it).

“All stories begin with ‘Once upon a time’. And that’s just what this story is about: what happened, once upon a time,” the first chapter begins conversationally, drawing in the readers with the tone of a lovable grandpa at storytime.

And it proceeds to regale the readers with stories that may be familiar to the student of history: prehistory and the stone age; the ancient civilizations; the rulers and invaders; major time periods (Medieval, Renaissance, Age of Exploration, Reformation, Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Age, the Cold War); religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism; 18th century China and 19th century Japan; the German Empire, and the first and second world wars — all in forty chapters, focusing on the human experience rather than getting bogged down by dates.

Note though, that the original text ends in World War I, and the chapter on World War II was added decades later, in hindsight, and he tiptoes over the events, with some amount of regret. He also rectifies certain errors in his original work.

Like all historians, of course Gombrich has his own biases, among them the fact that he’s male — not a lot of female historical figures make it into the book; and he’s European and the perspective is centered on his worldview — other than China, India and Japan, nothing else is mentioned about the other side of the world.

Nevertheless, the book covers quite a lot of Western history and still makes for very entertaining reading, probably even for those who find history boring. The introduction to the book has a delightful quote on this matter from Gombrich himself, originally written in the preface to the Turkish 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 memorize names and dates. In fact, I promise I shall not examine them on what they have read.”

And in that regard, I do believe Gombrich has succeeded.


A Little History of the World, on loan from Mike (thanks Mike!), 4/5 stars

Book #129 for 2010


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