“Good things come in small packages.” This catchphrase is surely true of A Little History of the World. E.H. Gombrich’s little book lives up to its name – a history of the world in roughly 280 pages.
In 1935, with a doctorate in art history and no prospect for a job, 26-year-old Ernest Gombrich proofed a children’s learning book for a publisher friend with intent to translate it into German. Unimpressed, he said, “I think I could write a better one myself.” To this, the publisher welcomed him to submit a chapter.
Gombrich wrote a chapter on chivalry and the publisher loved it. He asked Gombrich to attempt a history of the world for young readers, but needed a finished manuscript in six weeks. Amazingly, Gombrich completed it in six weeks’ time by researching a chapter a day and writing in the evening. Forty chapters in all, Gombrich takes his readers from Neanderthal man to the atomic bomb, and makes the journey terrifically enjoyable.
The book was first published in German in 1936. Before long it was translated into 17 other languages. A revised edition was published in 1985, in which Gombrich includes a personal perspective on events like World War II, computers, and the boom of modern technology.
In 2002, while in the process of writing an English translation, Gombrich died. His assistant, Caroline Mustill, finished the work. Best known for his book The Story of Art, Gombrich worked at the BBC and was a professor of History of the Classical Tradition at London University.
For Young or Old
The book is written in such a delightful way that readers of virtually any age will enjoy it. In the final stages of writing his doctoral thesis, Gombrich corresponded with the young daughter of some friends. She wondered what was keeping him so busy. He enjoyed trying to explain his subject to her in ways she would understand. This gave him some practice in writing for young readers. As a result, Gombrich’s little history is enchanting. Its imagery, metaphors, and personal commentary are enough to captivate any age.
Gombrich believed that “the pursuit of history – indeed, all learning – is an enquiry to be enjoyed” (xix). His book was not intended to replace any textbook of history. Instead, he wanted his readers to “relax, and 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” (xix).
The story begins as most should – with “Once upon a Time.” He writes, “That’s… what this story is all about: what happened, once upon a time. Once you were so small that, even standing on your tiptoes, you could barely reach your mother’s hand. Do you remember?” (1).
Picture a warm, gentle, grandfatherly man sitting on his porch or in his living room, children circled around his feet. As he reads to them the stories of our past, he is so engaging, conversational, and full of questions, he can’t help but grab their attention.
“You will never reach the beginning, because behind every beginning there’s always another Once upon a time’. It’s like a bottomless well. Does all this looking down make you dizzy? It does me. So let’s light a scrap of paper, and drop it down into that well. It will fall slowly, deeper and deeper. And as it burns it will light up the sides of the well. Can you see it? It’s going down and down. Now it’s so far down it’s like a tiny star in the dark depths. It’s getting smaller and smaller…and now it’s gone. Our memory is like that burning scrap of paper. We use it to light up the past” (2).
Young, old, know-it-all, or ignoramus – Gombrich can teach you something. I found his book fascinating and full of “aha” moments. But the perfect audience, you ask? Young teens at home for the summer, who need a good educational read that won’t lull them to sleep.
Charming in Style
Gombrich’s style is just that – charming. He is quite the storyteller. Here are a few examples.
Gombrich calls the early people of the Stone and Bronze Age “the greatest inventors of all time.” “Just once in a while, when eating some bread, using tools or warming ourselves by a fire, we should remember them with gratitude” (9).
Did you ever wonder how the days of the week were named? Babylonians believed that some planets brought good luck, others misfortune. “To each of the five planets known to them they dedicated a day. The sun and moon, made seven. In English we still say Satur (Saturn)-day, Sun-day, and Mon (moon)-day, but the other days are named after different gods. Would you ever have guessed that our weekday had such a strange and venerable history, reaching back all those thousands of years?” (21)
You will love this description of the Jews. Gombrich calls them a “special” people because of their religion. “They weren’t just part of history, they made history… All other people prayed to many gods… But these herdsmen only prayed to one god, their own special protector and leader. And when they sat beside their camp fires in the evening, and sang songs about their deeds and their battles, they sang of his deeds and his battles. Their god, they sang, was better and stronger and more exalted than all the gods of the heathen put together. Indeed, they insisted… he was The One and Only God, Creator of heaven and earth, sun and moon, land and river, plant and beast, and of all mankind as well. It was he who raged furiously against them in the storm, but he never abandoned his people. Not when they were persecuted by the Egyptians, nor when they were carried off by the Babylonians. For that was their faith and their pride: they were his people, and he was their God” (25).
In talking about Greek influence, Gombrich introduces Pericles as the most wise and intelligent Athenian ruler. It is 444BC. “And now I can hear you asking: But what exactly did [the Greeks] do that was so great?’ And I can only say everything.’ But two things interested them most and these were truth and beauty” (48).
How many of us know the story of Buddha and his “enlightenment” under the fig tree? Did you know his name was really Guatama and it wasn’t until later he became known as “The Enlightened One” or “The Buddha”? “I imagine that you’d like to know exactly what happened to Guatama, as he sat under that fig tree… but if you want me to try and explain it, you will have to do some hard thinking too… After all Guatama spent six whole years thinking about this and nothing else” (55). You’ll have to read the book for Gombrich’s summation of the Buddha’s solution to human suffering – it’s a great analogy.
And so the history is told. Form Confucius and Aristotle, to Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, and Julius Caesar.
Of Caesar Gombrich writes, “July takes its name from a thin-faced bald headed man who liked to wear a laurel wreath of gold on his head, a man whose weak and sickly body hid a shining intellect and a will of iron” (90).
He writes of China’s emperors, Jesus and the slow embrace of Christianity, the Dark Ages, which he calls “the starry night,” Atilla the Hun, Muhammad, Crusaders and Knights, Ghengis Khan, Joan of Arc, the Renaissance, which he calls “the bright new dawn”, Columbus, Martin Luther, the Jesuits, Galileo, Louis XIV, and the list goes on…
You can see how totally accessible Gombrich makes the history of the world. It is genius.
A European Perspective
Because Gombrich is German, the book is definitely written with European eyes. This alternative viewpoint, however, is a nice change. American heroes like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin are reduced to one simple paragraph while readers become familiar with the exhausting years of war, boundary changing, tragedies and triumphs the German people (and other Europeans) endured until finally securing states of their own.
Gombrich’s sensitivities are real. The entire book is fueled by moral expectations and an unequivocal sense of right and wrong. Of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, he writes, “This chapter in the history of mankind is so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it” (179). Later in his discussion of World War II and the devastating discovery of the Holocaust, Gombrich writes, “In chapter 33 it says that a truly new age’ [The Englightenment] began in which people started to turn their minds away from the brutality of earlier times…At the time that I wrote that it seemed to me inconceivable that anyone might ever again stoop to persecuting people of a different religion, use torture to extract confessions, or question the rights of a man. But what seemed unthinkable to me happened all the same. Such a painful step backwards seems almost beyond our understanding” (276).
The River of Time
Gombrich admits that the history of the world, “unfortunately, is not a pretty poem.” Yet, he says, “What I have always loved best about the history of the world is that it is true. That all the extraordinary things we read were no less real than you and I are today” (35). Then he ends with a vision similar to the well we looked down in his first chapter. It is the aerial view of a river – the “river of time.” He concludes, “Each one of us no more than a tiny glimmering thing, a sparkling droplet on the waves of time which flow past beneath us into an unknown, misty future. We leap up, look around us and, before we know it, we vanish again…New drops keep rising to the surface. And what we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave. But we must make use of that moment. It is worth the effort.” 271-272).
Any reader will find Gombrich’s A Little History of the World engaging, enlightening and oh so enjoyable. One to keep close on the shelf, read to your children, or reference occasionally when you need the uncomplicated definition of an event or person in history. Gombrich will hand it to you, pure, precise and with a bit of charm.