A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich, illustrated edition, 2011. 

Originally published (German edition) in Vienna in 1936; first published in English in 2005; paperback edition published 2008; illustrated edition (on which this review is based) published in 2011. English translation begun by E. H. Gombrich with Caroline Mustill, completed by Caroline Mustill, copyright 2005. Illustrated edition published in New Haven and London by Yale University Press.

Genre: History, informational writing

Ages: Primarily aimed at grades 4 through 8, though older students and adults will appreciate this readable distillation of world history.

 Features: Extensive, detailed Table of Contents, detailed index, lavish illustrations, Preface by Gombrich’s grandson, notes from the author

Summary

This book has a fascinating history of its own. In 1935, art historian Ernst Gombrich had just finished his studies at the University of Vienna–and was stone broke. A publisher offered him the opportunity to translate an English history of the world intended for children into German. Gombrich began reading the book, but found it so dull that he told the publisher it was not worth translating–and that, in fact, he could write a better book himself. Go ahead, was the response–but Gombrich was given only a scant six weeks to complete this formidable task. Ever up for a challenge, Gombrich listed major events from world history, and one by one, researched them at home in the morning–then augmented his research at the library each afternoon. In the evening, he wrote up what he had learned, and chapter by chapter, this little history came together. Remarkably, he met the deadline.

 When the book first came out in 1936, reviewers were so impressed by Gombrich’s ability to reach his audience (children) that they assumed he was an experienced teacher. Eventually, the book was translated into many languages, though the Nazis (less enthusiastic) suspended publication in Germany for some time. Gombrich, who was of Jewish heritage, ultimately moved with his family to England, but it was not until the 1990s that he began an English translation. Gombrich made numerous revisions to this later edition–no doubt influenced by his personal experience and new place of residence in the world. Sections on Chinese history and Buddhism were greatly expanded, and according to his grandson (who wrote the Preface), he had hoped to add chapters on Shakespeare, Parliamentary law, and other topics that became important to him as a citizen of England. He was still working on the new translation when he died at age 92, and his assistant, Caroline Mustill completed the translation for him.

A Little History is highly readable, engaging, and impressively ambitious, spanning history from the time of the dinosaurs through use of the atomic bomb. Does it take the place of other history books? No–and that is not the intent. It provides an overview, a big picture conversation about major historic events and figures that have shaped the world and our way of thinking. You don’t have to be a history buff to love this book. But if you have trouble recalling just when the French Revolution took place, why Hamurabi’s laws were  important, whether there’s a real Rosetta Stone, when Buddha lived, or whether Ghengis Khan had anything in common with Napoleon, then this is your book. As Gombrich wrote in his preface to the Turkish edition, “I would like my readers to relax, and to follow the story without having to take notes or to memorise [sic] names and dates. In fact, I promise that I shall not examine them on what they have read” (Preface, xvi). Whether this will be regarded as one of the great history books is a question for someone else to answer, but I can say this: It makes history understandable, memorable, and fun.

In the Classroom

1. An introduction. Share the Preface to the book aloud so that students can appreciate the book’s own history. Discuss Gombrich’s response to the book he was originally supposed to translate (before he decided to write his own): It was too dull to make translation worthwhile. Have your students ever felt that way about a book–that they could, in fact, write something better? In their view, are textbooks usually designed to appeal to their intended audience–or not? Why? (Consider writing short persuasive paragraphs about this.)

2. Preview the content. Be sure that, if at all possible, you have the illustrated edition of the book. As a follow-up to #1, discuss the ambitious scope of the book. Leaf through, using a document projector, or skim through the detailed Table of Contents. There are 40 chapters. Does this seem like a lot? Notice that, given the book’s length (328 pages), this makes individual chapters short. Is this a good thing in an informational book? Why? Without memorizing anything, try to get a sense of what is covered. Then, try to imagine research and writing about this many topics in a mere six weeks. Does this task feel overwhelming–or even possible? Discuss some of the strategies a writer would need to use to make such a gargantuan writing task manageable.

3. List of topics. Gombrich began by listing potential topics for the book–and likely, he made changes to that list as he worked, as any good writer would. What things did he include in this book that you would have expected to see there? Were some topics a surprise–or even new to you? Should a good history have surprises? Did he leave out anything he should have included?

4. A definition of history. Share Chapter 1, “Once Upon a Time,” aloud with students. Discuss (or have them write, in their own words) a definition of history, based on this chapter and their own thinking. Why do we study history? What can we learn from it?

5. Choosing read-aloud passages. Decide what, or how much, to share aloud–and what to have students read on their own. What you choose will likely depend on whether you are primarily interested in sharing specific content, or whether instead you are sharing samples of outstanding informational writing. I am deeply drawn to this book as an outstanding example of informational writing with both clarity and voice. Based on those criteria, I particularly recommend the following chapters (or selected excerpts from them): Chapter 2 (early inventions), 3 (the Egyptians), 6 (the Phoenician alphabet), 9 (the Greeks), 10 (Buddhism), 11 (Confucius), 14 (the burning of books), 19 (the Dark Ages), 23 (the Age of Chivalry), and 39 (the impact of industrialization). A personal note: There are moments throughout the book when the author makes a diligent effort to cover “everything,” and as a result, sometimes the sheer volume of data works, in my view, against his aim of making history accessible to young readers. This is a personal view from someone who is not a historian, and you may disagree. I think, however, Gombrich is at his best when he takes time to explain things like the marvels of the Phoenician alphabet or Arabic numbers, or what drove a painter like Leonardo daVinci.

6. Objectivity: Is it possible? History, it is often said, should be totally “objective,” meaning that the writer does not inject his or her opinions or perspectives into the text. But–is this even possible? Has it ever been achieved? Discuss with your students the fact that when Gombrich moved from Germany to England, he found it necessary to make many revisions to his book. (You may also wish to share the final chapter, “Looking Back,” aloud.) Does history tend to “revise” itself in our minds as we grow older, read, or experience different cultures? What does this tell us about any history–or any informational writing at all, for that matter? Do you find it surprising that Gombrich was still making changes to his book right up until his death at age 92? How different might this book have been if written, say, by someone who grew up in China, India, or Africa?

7. A personal view of history. The notion of objectivity (see #6) often means that history is boiled down to its essentials: events, names, dates. This book isn’t like that–at all. Its strong voice (for which it has been widely admired) comes largely from Gombrich’s ability to converse with readers–just as if he were sitting having a chat with us. Here’s an example from Chapter 23, “Chivalrous Knights”: You may have seen one of these castles, but the next time you do, don’t just think of the knights in chain mail who lived there. Instead, take a look at the walls and towers and spare a thought for the people who built them. Towers perched high on top of mountain crags, walls hung between precipices. All made by peasant serfs, men deprived of liberty–bondsmen as they were called. For it was they who had to split and carry the rocks, haul them up and pile them on top of each other. And when their strength gave out, their wives and children had to take over. A knight could command them to do anything. Better a knight than a serf any day (p. 155). Based on this–or any passage from the book–write a brief persuasive argument in favor of or against injecting voice or personal perspective into informational writing. Does Gombrich’s voice get in the way of the information–or make it easier to recall?

8. Creating a timeline. One thing an overview of this sort provides us is a large picture of history–one that spans thousands (indeed, millions) of years. This is a very different perspective from focusing, say on the Civil War or the Great Depression. One way to appreciate the vastness of this perspective is through a timeline. Consider creating a timeline that captures at least some, if not all, the major events from the book. What would you choose to include? Would you add anything not in the book? Remember the importance of cultural perspective in forming your answer.

9. Writing a good test question. Too often history tests seem to not get beyond literal facts: names, places, events, dates. Surely there is more to history than this, though. After sharing any chapter from the book aloud, ask students to write what they remember best–not as a test, but rather, as a way of “fixing” important information in their minds: writing to learn. Then, have a discussion. What should history teach us? Should we recall mostly facts–or are there more important lessons to be learned? In wrapping up this discussion, have students work with partners to create an important essay question: something they would ask if they were teaching the chapter they just read or heard.

10. The structure of history. How are most history books organized? Often, like this one, a major part of the structure focuses on wars and other conflicts. Is this inevitable when writing a history book? Or are there other ways to organize the human story? Imagine that you were going to write your own history of the world. What milestones of human civilization might you use to organize your information? (For just one creative possibility, have a look at Bill Bryson’s book At Home: A Short History of Private Life, 2010, Random House).

11. Your own revision/extension. A Little History ends quite a long while before the present. With the class as a whole, imagine that you were going to update the book to include important characters or events from the end of the book up until the present time. Make a list of things that should definitely NOT be left out. As a follow-up, have each student choose one topic and write a short chapter developing and expanding that topic. You may wish to use Gombrich’s approach and write the text in a way that makes it appealing for young readers. (Later discuss whether it is easier or harder to write for young readers versus adults.)

12.  Presentation. The illustrated version of Gombrich’s history (which is different from the original) is rich with paintings, photographs, maps, and other visuals. Leaf through the book, not reading, but just noticing the overall “look” of the pages. What do the illustrations add? without them, would the text be less readable–or even memorable? Why? Should illustrations be part of any informational writing students do in school in the 21st Century? Write a short persuasive argument on this topic. Use examples from this or any informational text to support your view.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

A discussion of time as not just a factor, but THE critical factor in teaching writing. Think about how much time you can (or should) devote to the teaching of writing–and whether it is possible for you to change this. What is realistic in today’s classroom? Thanks for stopping by, and please visit often!!!!! We appreciate you. Remember . . . Give every child a voice.

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