Jlawrence's Reviews > The New Penguin History of The World

The New Penguin History of The World by J.M. Roberts
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Mar 17, 08


Good lord, I finally finished this book! I think there were at least two periods where I put this one down and did not pick it up again for six months or so. So, while Roberts does his best to give shape and clarity to an immense amount of information, it is not the most gripping read (although, with the broad strokes necessary for a work like this, I doubt anyone could concoct scintillating prose).

Content-wise, there are two important weaknesses of the book. First, while it is titled 'History of the World', European history is delved into more thoroughly than anything else. However, in the preface Roberts is upfront about this focus and his reasons for it (mainly the disproportionate role Europe played in shaping world history, especially of the last 500 years), so you know what you're getting into. Also, despite the European emphasis, I still learned a great deal of non-European history here (though this may say more about the huge gaps in my historical knowledge than it does about the book's non-European coverage).

Second, there is not a single reference to any of the source material used. To write a book of this scope you must stand on the shoulders of literally hundreds of secondary sources. Now I understand that with a popular history work of this length and breadth it would probably not work to have extensive footnotes littering every page, but there easily could have been a simple 'major works referenced' list for each chapter.

At the very least, there could have been a 'suggested further reading' list at the end of the book. There is zilch. It is somewhat troubling to not know what sources Roberts chose, frustrating not to have at-hand leads to follow for subjects that were particularly interesting, and just plain unacceptable for there to be no credit given to all the previous works he pulled from. After reading 'Past Imperfect' last year, I've become especially sensitive to this.

The greatest strength of the book is that instead of simply relating facts and framing historical narratives, Roberts is constantly contemplating the greater significance of this or that society's or individual's successes and failures. Most of the time he does this in a way that's not too heavy-handed, and invites you to think about the history you're reading instead of just passively absorb it (occasionally you can feel like you're being hit over the head with a favorite idea, though). Roberts did a fantastic job in that respect.

Overall, useful for trying to get a broad grasp of world history if you can deal with the caveats mentioned above (and if you're ready for a long haul).
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Jlawrence I'm going to finish this thing this time, damns it!


message 2: by Ankit (new) - added it

Ankit Jain I'm on the Roman empire right now. will be long before I finish it.


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