Aaron's Reviews > The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events

The Timetables of History by Bernard Grun
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's review
Jan 23, 09

bookshelves: general, reference, history, social-studies
Read in June, 2002

A novel and interesting approach to teaching history. This book, as the title says, provides a timetable where you can look up what the human race was doing at various times and places throughout history. Each year or era is cross indexed with a sphere of human activity, such as arts, politics, science, etc. The book is oversize and runs a whopping 676 pages, and even then the entries are necessarily short in order to cover the whole of human history.

The book's strength is apparent at first glance. It is very accessible and allows even the most casual reader a good opportunity to flip open to any page and get a sense of the major events and concerns of a given time. What were the scientific or philosophical issues during the time when Charlemagne was on his conquests? It's convenient and fun. Grade school and high school classrooms and libraries would do well to have a copy of this book on hand.

I recommend the book, but I must give a few cautions. You will find, of course, the same problems and biases that affect every other history book written. The only context provided for interpreting events (besides the reader's prior familiarity) is other, equally brief, entries; this leads any given entry open to misinterpretation. Furthermore, there are always inherent biases in selecting or describing meaningful events. For example, in the 6th and 5th century BC there is a summation of Learning and Philosophy along the lines of "Humankind reaches a pinnacle of wisdom," or so; this is in reference to Socrates and the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Old Testament Jewish scholars, and various other unrelated but approximately concurrent notable philosophical people and groups. It's an interesting idea (and the editors were not the first to propose it), but it's a proposition and not a historical "fact." The entire book is subject to the same kind of simplification and "fudging" of information, and experts would almost certainly take issue with much or all of the material. Of course, you can decide for yourself what is fair and what's hair splitting.

Finally, this approach necessarily has to partition time into single years or spans of years, providing a snapshot of what happened in that time frame. It is not well suited for capturing trends and events that span more than one given time frame. For example, it would have a hard time pinpointing origins of capitalism in practice or in ideas in a given year or decade, and any attempt to cover that topic would have to select a more or less arbitrary point for reference, or just to make mention in passing. That makes it hard to use as a reference for such abstract and nebulous ideas and concepts. In short, it provides a lot of information, but it can't cover everything and it's fairly limited as a reference tool for a serious scholar.

So given its flaws and limitations, I commend the editors for taking on this mammoth task and for organizing and writing it in such an accessible way. If you're interested in history, give it a look. It's worth checking out.
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