Monday, October 5, 2009

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

Some literary endeavors are so darn ambitious, you worry about any writer's ability to pull them off. A Little History of the World is one such endeavor.

At first blush, it might not seem like much.
A history book, you say Mr.Gombrich? That's very nice. I am sure your mother would be real proud.

But then, this isn't just any history book.
What history were you thinking about Mr.Gombrich? Ancient? Middle ages? Modern? What is that, all of the above? Hmm, aren't you being a bit ambitious now, sir?

Whom are you targeting with this book of all history, Mr.Gombrich? What is that? Ten year olds? Now, now Mr.Gombrich, surely you don't think you could hold their attention for history?

And then you read the first chapter. The gentle, grandfatherly invitation to explore the past of human civilization. And you realize just what Mr.Gombrich is capable of.

A Little History of the World was first published in German in 1935 (not a typo). E.M.Gombrich was a well regarded historian of art who later went on to write a much better known bestselling book on the history of art. He was frustrated with how dry and boring schoolbooks on History were. He decided to take a shot at writing a short book that would be interesting to be read out to children, and would be both entertaining and enlightening. The book was published to great reviews and general success in 1935, and was translated over the years into multiple languages. For some reason, an English translation was not published till 2005, when Gombrich himself translated his book. The result is a true treasure.

As I have mentioned before, I am not the most ardent student of history you will meet. So my saying that I learnt a lot from the book might not be high praise. But let me say that anyway. I learnt more history from this book than I did from much of my school years. The Rosetta stone, the code of Hammurabi; the origin of the seven day week; the builder of the Great Wall as an enemy of history; the different emotional makeup of the Greek vs Roman empires; and what is the deal with Nero and the fiddling anyway? These and other mysteries - unraveled for me by The Little History of the World.
I only wish my daughter were a little older. I wish I could read this out to her. Then again, maybe that is the incentive I need to read this again!

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