The New History of the World The New History of the World discussion


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Making our Way through HoW

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message 1: by Carol (last edited Sep 09, 2012 02:03PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Carol Smith I see by clicking on Recent Status Updates that there are several of us currently reading HoW. I thought it might be nice to chat as we make our way along this epic journey. Post your insights, questions, and challenges here.


Carol Smith This weekend I read pages 444-488 (Imperial China; Japan; Worlds Apart). It was interesting to identify parallels in the historic development of China and Japan, as well as to see how history has impacted modern times in Japan (WWII military ethics mirror shogun/samurai creed) and Peru (cultural preoccupation with death). The discussion of the Americas and Africa also reinforced the observed ties between agriculture, civilization, and the development of writing systems. These are exactly the types of insights and connections I was hoping to glean from the book.

Well, it's not really a book so much as a Project, right? I initially planned to read it in 12 weeks, but it looks like it's gonna take me at least twice that time. For a book that focuses on broad strokes and big picture, the pages are quite dense. Lots of info to digest. I've ratcheted down my reading goal to two chapters per week or at least 40 pages, whichever is greater. Should finish by Christmas!

I'm taking notes along the way - is anyone else doing the same?


Richard I absolute agree that this is a 'project'!

I've read from the beginning to part-way through the chapter 'Islam and the Remaking of the Near East'. It's taken me over two years, although I have a lot of other reading, study, work and other commitments. Good idea to set a time for finishing the book. I should do that more often.

My thoughts:

I wonder, firstly, For readers relatively new to the subject, would it be better to start with the later chapters, say from the end of medieval Europe onwards (or later), and only then go back and study the ancient world in detail? This would be more like the approach taken at my secondary school, where we were taught history from WWI (and, briefly, its causes) up to modern times, before tackling any other periods.

Second, how do people feel about or cope with modern (made in the last 15 years) television history documentaries (I am thinking of the BBC here purely due to personal experience). Personally, I find them hugely exciting and absorbing, even when they are slightly bombastic in tone, and they often highlight new developments in historical research or advance unconventional or ground-breaking theories extremely persuasively. This, more often than not, requires changing the way we 'see' the story of the past. Speaking as someone without a complete (or close to complete) framework of world historical knowledge, as well as only having fluctuating ability to concentrate and recall memories, I find the mental gymnastics of doing this beyond me nearly all the time. I find the history programmes too wonderful and intriguing to miss, but I do wonder if I should concentrate on getting an authoritative narrative firmly into my mind first (even though some parts of it will inevitably be outdated), rather than trying to 'enjoy the fireworks' at the same time.
This also makes me realise how useful it would be to read (and keep) this on a touch-screen eReader or iPad, on which you could add unobtrusive contextual notes to your heart's content, flagging up the inaccuracies and noting anything else that helps. Maybe I'll ask for the eBook as a Christmas present.

Thirdly, I also would be interested to hear what readers hope to gain from reading the book. Is it part of a personal journey, to pass an exam, for pleasure, or to help with a specific career goal, for example?

As for the text itself, reading it (without making notes) has made me feel more intelligent and knowledgeable without my having been able to memorise many important facts. I think my vocabulary has improved, and my ability to argue a point, but I really need to go back and take notes to get the most out of the history. I've also purchased tracing paper for the maps. I can't stop myself (for example) from equating Persia's land area with Iran's, and similarly for every ancient people or country. Tracing the maps should help me get my geography right.

Finally, I also wondered about the very earliest chapters on the evolution of man. Would I have been better off reading dedicated natural history and geography/geology texts? It was certainly interesting and there were some fascinating insights expounded which I wouldn't have found anywhere else, but I found the narrative of man's evolution difficult to understand without the more accessible illustrations, timelines, and so on which I would see in an illustrated textbook or web site.

I seem to have made a few criticisms here, but I don't really mean them to be such. I think the book is wonderfully written. I'm touched by the almost palpable sense of a great, kind man, a top expert in his field, striving to enrich humanity by teaching readers about something of great importance that he was obviously incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about.


Carol Smith What a thoughtful and detailed reply! I already feel as if I now have some companionship on this epic journey. I share what I learn each week with my husband on our weekend country walks (a great way to reinforce new material, by the way), but he’s obviously not experiencing it in the same intense way that we are.

I’ll tackle just one thought at a time. Will post additional responses this weekend. With regard to whether or not one should start with later material:

I think one’s approach to this book will differ dramatically depending upon what one is seeking from it and how one personally learns best. I saw one review where someone said they’re not reading it in any order at all; rather, they visit it from time to time as an encyclopedic reference of sorts. That’s a great approach for that particular person’s needs and motivations.

For myself, I was motivated by a feeling that – despite history being a steady, lifelong component of my reading repertoire, I still felt that I hadn’t yet developed a complete sense of the “scaffolding” of human history, a full structural understanding that would allow me to know what “cubbyhole” to tuck new information into, and would help me understand how one historical development paralleled or drew from others. My hope was that this book would provide me with that, even if it might - inevitably - have some biases and limitations. I’m now some 40% of the way through it and I know it is absolutely supporting my personal goal. Yay!

To meet my goal, I felt that I needed to approach the work sequentially, beginning to end, so that I could best understand how one layer sits on top of another. That’s also working for me.

Also, I felt that I should attempt to digest the entire book in a relatively short period of time, so that I wouldn’t forget the beginning parts by the time I hit modern times. I want to walk away from the book with a holistic understanding of History. I originally hoped to read it in 3 months but once I got started, I realized it would probably take me double that amount of time. So much info on a single page – this is not breezy reading!. So far this strategy is also serving my purposes.

Finally, I am taking brief notes along the way. Just noting years and events/trends, in case I want to quickly check something. I'm noting in bold events that particularly intrigue me. I’ve now developed a second goal, which is to spend 2013 revisiting human history (again in time order), but this time via carefully selected books (maybe 26 books?) that match major topics covered in HotW and cover them in great depth and detail. In this way I hope to reinforce and further develop my initial “scaffolding”.

Looking forward to hearing what is motivating others to read this work and to learn how others are approaching it.


Carol Smith Your question about historical documentary films is an interesting one. It parallels that familiar "Should I read the novel or see the movie first?" question. Again, I think it can work both ways. A quality documentary can spur us to learn more through reading, and a documentary can probably be enjoyed more (or at least enjoyed with more discernment) if one reads about the topic first. Because they employ different senses, they also extend and deepen our understanding of a subject.

My big beef is with the quality of many documentaries. We don't have cable TV but we subscribe to Netflix and certainly add documentaries to our film queue. But many of them are sooo bad these days! Many seem dumbed down and unnecessarily repetitive, almost in a purposefully looping kinda way. One really great one we saw recently, by the way, is Cracking the Maya Code. Fascinating.


Carol Smith I seem to have made a few criticisms here, but I don't really mean them to be such. I think the book is wonderfully written.

I don't think you are being too critical at all. I also admire the chutzpah of the man for taking on such a monumental task. People are inevitably going to razz him for glossing over certain aspects of history and demonstrating certain biases (which he acknowledges up front), but neither of these limitations should put anyone off from reading it. As long as they approach it with a critical eye.

I am truly fascinated to hear that you are using tracing paper to better interpret the maps. I find the maps to be frustrating. They're far too small. And the shading variations on the legends are often indistinguishable from each other. Ack! I wish the publisher would reproduce them on a web site, larger and in color, for us to consult. The maps are so essential for understanding early migrations, but I find some of them extremely difficult to interpret. I've turned to the web to locate alternative maps and have a nice bookmark toolbar folder of them going. I find the animated maps to be especially helpful, although they sometimes don't correlate well with Roberts' text.

As others have mentioned, I can understand why he might have had to leave out references (that would require a separate volume!), but I really would have appreciated his recommendations for further reading for each chapter.

I also thought it might be helpful if years could be added in the margins. Some chapters bounce back and forth in time and one can get lost.

His writing style was frustrating me in the beginning, and I was tiring of his frequent statements that only sweeping generalizations can be made on certain subjects. But I think I've settled in comfortably to his sentence structure at this point, and once you're solidly in the period of recorded history he stops making those broad discounting statements.

So I have some criticisms as well. But they don't substantively take away from the quality of the work as a whole.

Of course, I'm not even halfway there yet...


Richard Thanks for the interesting responses. One (very trendy) method I tried for reinforcing the information was skimming through one of the chapters I had already read and tweeting short notes about it. Other than that I'm just trying to relate the historical world to the present day or the bits of history I know well, or somehow spin the stories into anything else in my mental life. It's working reasonably well and makes life more interesting, or even amusing, sometimes.

Re the maps:

I tried looking for maps on the web as well, briefly, but I gave up because I really felt they had to correlate with the maps in the book, or I would just find them confusing. Also, they would all be different sizes, I'd have to print them to make them useful to me, and the styles are too varied. However, I'm lucky enough to live one minute's walk from the town library where they have a historical atlas, I think by Cassell. It's great for showing the broad strokes of migration, invasion and flight, and is in full colour (although, possibly due to red-green colour deficiency, I sometimes find it hard to distinguish some of the shades used). Because the maps are so conveniently presented, and the subject matter is reasonably close, I've decided to use this atlas to supplement the geographical side of things. I also bought a couple of glossy hardbacks on the ancient world and Mesopotamia second-hand on Amazon.co.uk for silly-cheap prices, because I felt I needed to see pictures of the art, architecture, and so on. I'm yet to delve into these. And I'm planning to go to the British Museum in London at least once.

To elaborate on my tracing paper plan, as well as tracing from the book, I'm going to trace maps from large-scale atlases, then practice drawing in borders myself, which should be less fiddly than using outlines from the book. I seem to remember being given outline maps of Europe in university history classes and being told to shade the countries in. It seems a useful way to really fix them in memory.


Carol Smith It sounds like the atlas you are using may be an edition of this one? I am a librarian and we do have some issues of this on our shelves. I'll look for it.

I've also used Google Earth a couple of times (something I do frequently for other works). Most recently, he described how Tenochtitlan was founded on an island in the middle of a lake, and how the Aztecs built impressively long and wide causeways out to it. I'd never heard of that! But a quick visit to Google and a few other sites confirmed that the lake was long since filled in. It just looks like any other part of Mexico City now. So, yeah - I'd like to see an historical map of that.

I admire you for your tracing paper efforts. Memorization activities have become so denigrated and downplayed in modern education, but there's no other way if you want some information to be permanently stored. I study French. No other way around it but to practice over and over.

I've been to the British Museum but it's half a continent and a full ocean away from me. I do have plans to include some serious color plated books in my history book selections in 2013, to try to bring some of the arts, etc. that he describes to life.

I am making all sorts of parallels to modern days as I read, albeit broad ones. For example, today just as then, most conflict is ultimately about the ever increasing competition for natural resources. Also, you can see the familiar pattern of decline and fall playing out all over again, right underneath our feet. When a nation stops expanding - however they may be accomplishing it - the tax revenues stagnate, the military can't be supported, and the bureaucracy grows more complex, leading to eventual disintegration. I see it happening now. But it's not the end as most people think. Something new always takes its place, for better or for worse.


Richard Just time to give you this link to the atlas: Cassell's Atlas Of World History by John Haywood . They have the Times atlas too, but I haven't looked at it yet.


Richard I've had a break from reading the History, and coming back to it now with a fresh mind, I've decided to read recent history first. In some ways I'm looking to the book to give me a stronger sense of identity, and as a result the ancient world seems very romantic, but too remote.

It's hard to know at what point to start and work back from. Book Eight, The Latest Age, seems like it should be read only after reading Book Seven, or maybe [i]everything[/i] else if I could be extra thorough, so it seems to be a choice between Book Seven, The End of the Europeans' World, or Book Five, The Making of the European Age.

However, after a bit of thought, I think as long as I make regular progress (and quicker than at the moment), Book Seven is best for me to read next.
I asked myself, "if I only manage to read one or two of the eight books, which is going to be the most useful to me with my current priorities in life?", and I think the last two will help me understand our world best.


Carol Smith My library doesn't have any Cassell atlases, but I can borrow them from other libraries in the state. Will do so, and maybe pick up a used copy from Amazon if I like it. Excellent advice for people just approaching HotW. John Haywood has published a ton of atlases. I'm wondering how much overlap there is between them...

Tomorrow is my HotW day. Can't wait to get back to it.


Carol Smith I lied. My library has a 2011 Cassell atlas. Gonna pick it up tomorrow. Thanks for the tip!


Carol Smith Whew - I just finished Book Five. This book started out dandy, but about halfway through the amount of information being thrown at the reader becomes a tad overwhelming. This isn't helped by the fact that Roberts moves into a pattern of covering a single time period multiple times, once for each geographic region or nation-state. I understand the reasons for this, but he isn't always consistent about identifying time periods and it can be difficult to keep the timeline straight. This is exacerbated by the fact that several of the chapters in book six cover the same time period (1500-1800), while focusing on different aspects of it. I've been keeping timeline notes as I go along, but feel like I need to consolidate them further, into a single timeline.

Part of me thinks I should slow down my pace as the amount of information conveyed with each page increases, but I really, really want to finish this puppy this year (so I can revisit the whole panoply next year via individual books covering each major phase of world history). But my determination to make steady progress means I'm not absorbing everything as fully as I'd like. Ah well!

Haywood's New Atlas of World History is really helping with this project - thanks again for recommending it. Will probably pick up a used copy for my personal collection.

Have you decided which book to focus on? I'm still committed to the linear approach. Everything builds on something earlier. I like how Roberts tends to end most chapters and books by observing how one age or event opens up/leads to another. But I think you will be able to absorb the material more deeply than I, by focusing on a more manageable slice of a very large pie.


Carol Smith I'll be starting on Book Seven this week. Book Six is quite a doozy. I feel like I now have a decent handle on the modernizing forces of both revolution (American; French) and imperialism (everyone but especially the British). The accelerating pace of history over such a short period is dizzying. I'm growing a bit weary of the Eurocentrism even though I understand the reasons for it, so I particularly enjoyed the last chapter of Book Seven. Asia throws up its hands and says "Enough meddling!"


Richard Carol wrote: "Whew - I just finished Book Five. This book started out dandy, but about halfway through the amount of information being thrown at the reader becomes a tad overwhelming. This isn't helped by the fa..."

I've recently been on a work placement in a big IT company which left me exhausted and haven't got any further through the book, but I'm hoping to get a chance to read the Book Seven chapter, "The Era of the First World War" in the next few days. I need to read it through in one or two sittings to make it easier to recall, and I've been finding it difficult to allocate time. I'm using the Cassell atlas in the library right now. I'm trying to find personal angles to draw me in to the story. I don't know my family history beyond grandparents but knowing that might make reading about WWI more memorable. And to imagine family, friends and people I've encountered in the historical settings is hugely enjoyable once I achieve a high enough level of detail in my mind, and could lead to some interesting creative writing.

Glad you're still enjoying it. Will you be teaching your new, more complete knowledge to anyone?


Carol Smith Just noticed your post yesterday. And...I actually finished HotW this morning! A true accomplishment. I can't imagine that many people have read it cover to cover. I'm already looking forward to revisiting world history in 2013 with individual book selections that cover key events and trends of HotW in greater depth.

Best of luck with your ongoing historical explorations and creative writing endeavors. I like that you approach history thoughtfully and with consideration to what new understanding you can gain from it.

In response to your question, I have been imparting my new knowledge all along the way, on daily walks with the hubby. He's enjoyed "reading" it vicariously through me. It's inspired lots of good conversation.


Richard Well done! Enjoy your further research. *Makes mental note to read a wee bit faster to get up to the same standard as Goodreads friends*


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