Alan's Reviews > A History of the World in 100 Objects

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
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it was amazing
Recommended to Alan by: A trove of knowledge centuries in the making
Recommended for: Citizens of Earth

The tl;dr (too-long; didn't-read) version of A History of the World in 100 Objects:
"We pillaged the world to collect these things, and now we will explain them to you."
The article that starts the title is significant, though—this book never pretends to be the history of the world. It is a singular slice through time and space, a selective view, that tries to be inclusive (and, for the most part, succeeds). It is limited, yes, but it acknowledges those limits gracefully.

Neil MacGregor does sometimes fail to transcend British cultural myopia. A Native American pipe gets described (on p.235) as similar in size and shape to a "bourbon biscuit"—whatever that is. Other references to football pitches and sheets of A3 paper are more translatable, if no less Anglocentric. Setting aside the literal insularity of its viewpoint, though, A History of the World in 100 Objects is a truly amazing compendium.

And then there are moments of clarity, like this observation—so much against our conventional wisdom—about bureaucracy as "life-saving continuity":
Modern politicians proudly announce their desire to sweep away bureaucracy. The contemporary prejudice is that it slows you down, clogs things up; but if you take a historical view, it is bureaucracy that sees you through the rocky patches and enables the state to survive.
—p.463

I was lucky enough to be able to visit the British Museum in London several times during a once-in-a-lifetime visit to England back in 2013, and I was amazed by the breadth and range of its collection. I saw several of the artifacts featured in this book firsthand—among them, the Rosetta Stone (Ch. 33), the moai Hoa Hakananai'a (Ch. 70) and this Aztec double-headed feathered serpent (Ch. 78):
double-headed feathered serpent
I was (if I may use a Britishism here) gobsmacked by their antiquity, and also by the respect with which the Museum treats the objects under its care. It's certainly possible to dispute that the British Museum should be caretakers for the many items in its collection that come from other parts of the planet, but you can't argue with the care itself.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is a long book, but it is a lively and entertaining one as well. Its short chapters lend themselves to episodic reading, and the photographs of the artifacts it highlights are uniformly of high quality. You'll notice, if you read through this book from start to finish, that there's a fair amount of repetition—phrases and observations that crop up again and again. However, this book was originally a series of audio segments broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (which amazes me anew, as being able to see the objects discussed, even if just in photographs, adds so much to the text), and so the repetition is not a flaw, but rather a way to tie these pieces together.

And tied together they are. The final quotation out of the many in A History of the World in 100 Objects sums this up rather well:
"When we look at the history of the world, it is very important to recognize that we are not looking at the history of different civilizations truncated and separated from each other. Civilizations have a huge amount of contact, and there is a kind of inter-connectedness. I have always thought of the history of the world not as a history of civilizations but as a history of world civilizations evolving in often similar, often diverse, ways, always interacting with each other."
Amartya Sen, p. 658
Perhaps this book's 22nd-century reissue will even include the current edition as its 101st object. From this viewpoint, that seems like an excellent choice.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
October 3, 2017 – Finished Reading
October 6, 2017 – Shelved

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