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Book review: “A Short History of the World” by Christopher Lascelles

Book review by Christopher Ryland:

In the mid-1990s, I worked for two years in an out-of-print bookshop that specialized in Southern US history and literature, but which also carried a lot of used encyclopedias and other reference books. We sold a great many sets of World Book and Britannica, as well as medical and law dictionaries, not to mention the two-volume compact OED (complete with magnifying glass!). Those giant Will and Ariel Durant sets also flew off the shelves. The Internet was in its infancy, and we were just then starting to sell a few Microsoft Encarta CD-ROMs.

Nowadays, of course, with Wikipedia and the smartphone, people can easily and cheaply carry unimaginably large reference libraries in their pockets. There’s almost nothing we learned in high school or college less than a minute away, if we really need it. One might even expect that school textbooks themselves might become obsolete soon enough, so there’s not much demand anymore for giant tomes to eat up wallets or wall space.

But perhaps there is still a market for something smaller, for reference books that aren’t comprehensive, and in print format don’t take up much space, yet still manage to provide appropriate background and context. This idea is the rationale behind Christopher Lascelles’ “A Short History of the World.”

An unassuming, non-academic book matchincovers name, this work covers in less than 200 pages the entire history of the world from the dawn of time through the end of the second millennium. With each segment probably shorter than a corresponding Wikipedia entry, “A Short History” is merely a general interest summary of nearly every significant civilization, empire, revolution, or social and cultural advance of the last seven thousand years.

So with a scope like this in such a short space, it may seem impossible for such a work to give any one topic the attention it deserves. The ancient Egyptians, for example, receive four paragraphs of attention. The ancient Greeks get two pages. Rome gets about 13 pages (but Rome is generally accorded a big deal). Later developments, including the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, various twentieth century wars, and so on are likewise covered in just a few pages. Non-western civilizations generally get even less attention (understandably), and while many worthwhile topics are understated (the impact of the Black Death, Genghis Khan’s hyper-efficient brutality), many are also absent altogether.

Surprisingly, though, this approach works quite well for the most part. The book is divided into historical eras (the ancient world, the late middle ages, the 20th century, etc.), but within each chapter, various global developments are presented in largely parallel fashion. So the fall of Byzantium, the rise of the Arabic Empires, the Islamic golden age, Charlemagne, and the Viking ages are all presented in one chapter with overlapping references, so that the reader doesn’t need to travel so far from one to the other as to forget it. A self-consciously linear narrative might be somewhat old-fashioned, but it’s a wonderful tool for tying various narratives together, and Lascelles does a good job of it, especially in the early chapters.

This structure doesn’t work quite so well, though, when it comes to the presentation of complex socio-economic and political changes. As long as the focus is on imperial dynasties, or the rise and fall of powerful institutions, it’s easy enough to switch back and forth between discrete topics. But starting at about 1500, European history (especially) begins crossing geographical boundaries in a big way. With multiple Protestant sects springing up in multiple places; trade, empires, and wars wars becoming global; and revolutionary ideology becoming commonplace, it becomes difficult to describe any development in isolation. As a result, important but confusing subjects (such as the Thirty Years War) get short shrift, and in places the text begs for more. For example, in the two-sentence description of the Spanish Civil War, even the word “Republican” is missing, presumably for lack of space. The same is true for later political and economic developments such as human rights, women’s rights, and communism. That’s not to say that the author doesn’t his best to cover these topics, just that the structural limitations become more evident when answers just lead to further questions.

So with such little attention paid to any one topic, the question then becomes, “is this book worth it?” Surely the compilation, fact-checking, and condensing of all this information must have been quite an effort, but what is the audience for something like this? Are there really people out there who prefer to pay for a book version (available both digitally and in print, in this case) of what they can essentially get for free? The author insists in the preface that he has done nothing but select and present accurate information, so what can be the added value here? The reader can learn much more about the American Civil War by searching online than from this book, no matter how carefully Lascelles may have selected the pertinent information.

I think in this case the answer lies with context. The hyperlinked structure of the Internet can also be a weakness when trying to understand how history fits together. In that environment, there is neither a specific path to follow nor a boundary for any particular investigation. The online reader will of course learn lots of fascinating stuff, but he may never see the big picture. “A Short History of the World,” on the other hand, is all about the big picture. And better yet, the author provides (at least in the printed version) a fold-out timeline at the back, in order to reinforce the presentation within the text. Sometimes context is best explored visually, and this timeline is a wonderful such tool. The details can always be looked up elsewhere, but you won’t find a handier or more useful guide to the generalities than “A Short History of the World.”

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