David's Reviews > A Little History of the World

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich
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's review
Jan 31, 09

it was ok
bookshelves: read-in-2009
Read in January, 2009

I can't bring myself to jump on the warm and fuzzy bandwagon of approval of this deeply flawed book. It is what it is - a condensation of all of human history into sequential "stories" suitable for "children". Supposing for the moment that this is not an inherent recipe for disaster, what is baffling is the number of reviewers who claim to see something in this work "for adults".

Other reviewers seem to agree on the book's "lack of condescension", so I guess I'll have to chalk my own perception of Gombrich's condescending tone up to an inability to put myself in the shoes of a 10-year old. So I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on that point.
(ON EDIT: hell, no I won't; I found him condescending as all get out)

What I can't forgive him is the utterly Eurocentric, theistic worldview that permeates every page of this book. Oh sure, Buddha and Confucius get a token few pages, Islam gets its chapter. A typical excerpt: "I am especially grateful to the Arabs.... for the wonderful tales they used to tell... which you can read in 1,001 Nights." To be fair, he does give the Arabs credit for development of our modern number system, though he somewhat spoils the effect by continuing "Perhaps it's just as well that Charles Martel defeated the Arabs in 732".

And so it goes. Want to know what happened to the native peoples of the Americas? "There (in Mexico) and in other parts of America, the Spaniards proceeded to exterminate the ancient, cultivated Indian peoples in the most horrendous way. 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". So, not a mention of the human toll associated with Manifest Destiny (sorry, Plains Indians!); for the colonial depredations in Africa, just one sentence: "as you can imagine, the native inhabitants were often very badly treated if any of them tried shooting at the invading troops with their bows and arrows".

Is this dude for real? I think there's a whole lot of Congolese (to mention just one example) who had their hands chopped off for "infractions" considerably less severe than shooting at their colonial invaders with bows and arrows. I suppose European behavior in Africa was just so shameful, best just not to mention it. Wouldn't want to upset the kids.

For all I know, kids may lap this kind of thing up. But I doubt it. If this enormously biased, sanitized, middle Eurocentric view of history were all they were to be exposed to, the world would be in a sorry state indeed.
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Comments (showing 1-15 of 15) (15 new)

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David It really was pretty dreadful. And, hell, despite what I said in my review about giving him the benefit of the doubt, pretty damn condescending as well.

message 2: by Monica (new) - added it

Monica I was completely turned off by his rudeness to a young woman who asked a question at a lecture at the Met. Condescending is the perfect word for him.

message 3: by [deleted user] (last edited Mar 21, 2010 03:38PM) (new)

While your criticisms are valid (or, at least, would be, if there intended target were a college textbook) I think your approach to this book was off-base. This is a book written for children in 1935. Gombrich never implies that negative periods of history should be glossed over, and there is a persistent strain of humanism throughout his book, as when he discusses the practice of slavery in different countries throughout history, the unfair treatment of peasants, and the atrocities of the French revolution. But perhaps he, very wisely, kept his audience in mind, and felt that children, being read to at night or picking up a story to pass the time on a summer day, do not need to hear about Africans getting their hands chopped off or Native American death marches.

As for the book's being euro-centric, I won't bother asking you to keep in mind that it was written by a European in the 1930s (read: before public school textbooks were required to mention certain numbers of women and non-whites or the popularization of terms like "global citizen"), but instead ask you to try, hard as it may be, to put yourself in the shoes of a ten-year-old and realize that this is an essentially SELF-centric time in a person's development, and the easiest way for a child to approach any new subject is to learn about it as it relates to himself.

I'm sorry I can't agree with a single one of your criticisms of A Little World History. I think this is a fine book that accomplishes what it set out to do, even if it doesn't pass the strict P.C. litmus tests of today's global citizens or include lots of graphic descriptions of dismemberment and ethnic cleansing for its pre-adolescent readership to meditate solemnly upon.

David I think I understand your argument, but I think it's irrelevant. My review wasn't written for the readers of 1935.

Would you give it to a 10-year old to read in 2010? I sure as hell wouldn't. I think kids in general are capable of handling far more than adults give them credit for, and I think the attitude implicit in your comment doesn't do them justice. Political correctness is not really the issue here.

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

If political correctness isn't really the issue, what is? Because I don't understand your approbation of this book on any other grounds. It certainly can't be that it isn't exhaustive enough? Whether a child was born in 1925 or 2000, only a veritable prodigy of sobriety and scholarship would slough through a book that weren't presented in a relevant, enjoyable manner. I don't sell kids short on their ability to sop up information like sponges when they want to, but that doesn't mean we need to drown them in it! Let them have a few years of reading about knights and emperors, then open the floodgates of genocide, colonialism, eminent domain, et al. It'll keep, I promise... But kids don't want to be preached at, and they like to laugh. I think that's what Gombrich, along with all really fantastic writers of children's literature, kept in mind when he wrote this book.

A Little History was written to be enjoyed, not as a substitute for classroom education. There's absolutely no risk of it being "all a child is exposed to," just because he does happen to be exposed to it. The only risk is that he might develop or reinforce a love of reading, and knowledge generally.

But if any parent or mentor is particularly concerned, he can always say, "Wasn't that a fun book, Johnny? See here, on this page you can see when it was first written. Back then, Americans and Europeans didn't care to learn as much about other cultures as we do today, and so much the worse for them... There were a lot of facts in this book even I didn't know, but is there anything you know about world history that WASN'T in the book?" I think they would find that Johnny could easily answer their question, his cultural awareness and ability to think critically not, in fact, totally obliterated.

David Well, I think we disagree about the book. I think you're right to raise the question of whether it's fair to apply a 21st century yardstick to a book that was written in 1935.

message 7: by Katie (new)

Katie Mcsweeney I'm with Genevieve! Any child who is interested in history won't stop after this book, they will learn more in school, from T.V. documentaries and from reading other books. This book will probably serve to whet their appetites!

Mafalda If you want a more serious one try this : "The Story of man" by Aydon Cyril

David Reading over Genevieve's defense and Katie's acquiescence again, I can only add "You really need to try a little harder, ladies!". Anyone who thinks this paternalistic codswallop is a suitable way to introduce their kids to history is not showing much in the way of imagination.

Fighting words, I know! Chalk it down to the peevishness that comes of being stuck home with a cold.

Thanks for the suggestion, Mafalda!

message 10: by Katie (new)

Katie Mcsweeney Sounds like we shall be agreeing to disagree :)

David You are very gracious, and I was being loutish. Forgive me.

message 12: by Katie (new)

Katie Mcsweeney Consider yourself forgiven. I agree with you to a point but I think the kids with the good sense to question what they are told will really just learn to love history. Like me ;)

message 13: by Rob (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rob By those standards, no history written before about 1970 is suitable for children today. Personally, I'm not willing to consign the greater portion of historical works to the dustbin because of their bias. Better to teach children about bias than try to avoid it.

Austen to Zafón I thought I'd pipe up here to give a view from an actual *child's* perspective. You know, the intended audience. My son listened to this when he was 7 and, at his request, again a month later. He's almost 9 and has asked to listen to it again. We listen to it as an audio book in the car and it has spawned many discussions. I've paused the CD many times to make a point, voice a disagreement, or relate it to other things we read, like mythology. This book sparked his interest in history in a more general way. I can't ask more of a book. Perhaps in your view, my son isn't particularly bright or discerning. But he rated it 5 stars. I don't know of any history that is unbiased or c=not centered in its own time and cultural world view. We have discussed that fact. We would discuss that no matter what history we started with. But the fun stories, the battles, the adventures, and the humor was a great place to start. In fact, I think for my son, this was a lot like listening to the Odyssey, Robin Hood, or King Arthur, all of which he has loved.

Rachel I'm sorry, I disagree with your review. Firstly, we should recognise that this book was written many years ago at a different cultural and social time in history, so I think we should cut him some slack for being more "religiously minded" and opinionated. He was writing at a different time and in a different style. Secondly, he says at the start of his book that he chose what he thought would be major events in history that the majority would be interested in. It would be impossible for him to include everything, so we should cut him some slack for excluding certain things. Writers do have word limits, after all. Lastly, I read this when I was 22 and even I didn't find the tone condescending. It's written for young people and is something knowledgeable that is made accessible to them. Obviously I understand some people won't like this book which is fine, but I personally disagree with some of your reasoning. All the best! Rachel

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