Thursday, March 29, 2012

Christopher Lascelles, A Short History of the World

Christopher Lascelles seems to be a nice man, and he likes this blog. I love him for that. He has asked me to do something really difficult which is to review something he has written, his Short History of the World, available as an e-book from a variety of sources.  (Here and here, for instance.)

Asking a professional historian to do such a review, of a book that summarizes a lot of material for a popular audience, guarantees that two things are going to happen, at least if the historian is honest. First the reviewer will see everything where his or her judgment differs from the author's and start complaining. Second – and here is where the honesty comes in – the professional historian will say to him or herself, "If you're so smart why don't you write a world history yourself?"  (If you want to weasel out of your predicament, you can say, "Of course I won't. This is not a sensible project at all."  But I at least can't honestly say that.) It's a difficult position to be in.

But my discomfort is really beside the point.This book, like any other book of similar aim, is not for people who have always been interested in history. This is for people who for some reason have just realized that history is important, and not just local, regional or national history but all of history.   They want a quick and brief orientation so that they can put their fragmentary knowledge of history into some kind of context. Christopher's book will do that job.

Given that this is Christopher's audience, it is kind of pointless to talk about what he included and what he left out, at least in any detail. I think he probably should have said more about Africa and South America... And the list reaches out to infinity until Christopher is required to write a huge encyclopedia.

So I will restrict myself to saying that I was rather surprised that he hasn't included very much about events since the fall of Soviet Union in 1991. That is something that I think he might actually consider doing something about. For instance, I'd urge him to think about how amazing it is that South Africa's apartheid regime was dismantled with such a small amount of bloodshed. (This should come naturally, since he is very forthright condemning other instances where regimes murdered millions.)  South Africa was a bomb waiting to blow up half a continent and never did. Finally, he may consider that the  Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War, and the more recent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan need to be put in context, too. Young readers  are coming along all the time, and the gap between 1991 and the present grows every year.   I had a bright student about 21 years old tell me just last month that she hadn't really realized the importance of 9/11 until about three years ago.

Final point: good maps.

No comments:

Post a Comment