This book of history has a long history of its own. It was written in six weeks by an unemployed Austrian university graduate who challenged himself to write a more interesting book than one he had been asked to translate. He was sure he could do a better job. The original work was entitled
Eine Kurze Weltgeschicte für junge Leser and was well received. It was as much a book of opinion and feeling as of fact, though the facts were so well-researched that it was assumed that the author was an experienced academic. However, the Nazis viewed it as "pacifistic" and so it went out of print, and E.H. Gombrich went to England, luckily, to become a noted art historian whose work
The Story of Art is a classic. Years later, he embarked on a project to translate his history book into English but died before it was completed. The work was taken up by his collaborators, illustrations were added, and the result is A Little History of the World, a book for young readers which is both charming and informative.
The book begins with "once upon a time," and throughout you feel that the author is speaking directly to you. For example, Chapter
Three, concerning ancient Egypt, begins, "Here – as I promised – History begins." In a survey of China and Asia, Gombrich sympathetically recounts the life stories of the Buddha, Confucius and Lao-Tsu (no wonder the Nazis thought the book was dangerous). In asserting that Confucius taught that outward appearances are all-important, we are advised, as by a strict but loving parent, "You may not like it, but there is more wisdom in it than first meets the eye." The omniscient author is there to tell us the backstory in each situation; in the chapter treating with the revolutions in France and America, he writes: "In 1776 they declared the sacred rights of all men to liberty and equality to be the founding principles of their new state. But for the negro slaves on their plantations, life simply went on as before." This is the bare-faced truth, not the usual factual account of most histories. It is clear that Gombrich sought to gently guide as well as inform young people.
As an American, it is healthy to read a book like this because the views expressed are not Amero-centric. Gombrich's world was balanced. Europe was not its center, nor was the United States. Some of the book is prescient and would be thought-provoking for a young student. He speaks plainly about the leader Muhammed and his call to slay or convert the infidels, and he correctly identifies technology as the great force that is making our world smaller.
Another interesting aspect to the book is that, forty years after it was written, the author was able to revise it and make corrections, even apologies, where time had proved him wrong or he had been mistaken in his analysis. His original work ended after World War I. He has a chance, in the final chapter called "Looking Back," to speak about the atomic age, transcontinental flight, and other key elements of the post-WWII era. He also points out that poor countries of Asia, Africa and South America aren't much better off than they had been at the turn of the century, but that with improved communications, people in the richer countries are able to respond with generosity when they hear of disasters and deprivations overseas. "Which proves," Gombrich concludes, "that we still have the right to go on hoping for a better future."
You may buy this book for your teenager, and keep it for yourself. It's an artistically pleasing publication, and let's face it, we all could do to brush up on our world history.