Monday, September 01, 2008

Review: A Very Short History of the World

Last week I finished reading "A Very Short History of the World"

I've been trying to find a book that covers the entire span of history - from prehistoric times to the present. But such books can be pretty heavy going and tend to be huge tomes with fine print.

Geoffrey Blainey, however, delivers what he promises, i.e. a very short and a very readable history of the world which spans all eras without being overwhelming.

Of course, it does mean that the writer has had to make some omissions and jump quickly over certain events in the interests of brevity. And as he admits in the preface, he has made judgments on where to slow down and give details and perspective, and where to skip over quickly to the next thing. 

For my taste, the judgments work nicely. 

For instance there is a separate, short chapter on how the night sky was very important in ancient times and what that led to. On the other hand the treatment of the more recent World Wars is brief to the point of being a bit underwhelming.

What I particularly like is the way he links developments in different parts of the world together to give perspective of how the overall world evolved. This helps fix events in the mind and relate the various eras and civilizations. Here's a typical passage:

"In the 480s BC, Buddha in old age was preaching his word along the Ganges, Confucius was writing down his precepts in northern China, and the Athenians, having just defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, were cultivating those arts and that democracy on which their fame was to rest."

At 450 pages of normal sized print and short chapters, this is a fast-paced book that takes you on a high level journey of human history and tries to connect the dots that lead us to today's world. A great book as a jumping off point for further forays into history, for once I'd gone through the big-picture provided by Blainey I felt the urge to zero in on several periods with more specific texts.

Definitely worth a read for the non-expert-but curious-about-history types who've been too intimidated by more voluminous accounts.

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