200 of 203 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2005
Most people know Gombrich through his magnificent "The Story of Art," which is simply the best overview of art ever written. Although "A Little History of the World" is on a much smaller scale, it is just as beautifully crafted. He does a wonderful job of providing a quick and insightful overview of (primarily) Western history. In particular, he transforms history into a compelling story that pulls you along from chapter to chapter. I can think of no better gift to give a young person in this day of sound bites and history-lite. And even though it was written for young people, it provides us older folks with a healthy and enjoyable refresher on where we and our society have come from. I've read several comprehensive world histories (in particular J.M. Roberts classic History of the World) and Gombrich's little book serves as a wonderful complement to such larger and more comprehensive works.
65 of 68 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2009
In history, context is vital. Events seldom make sense when presented individually, and often, the only way to fully understand, comprehend and appreciate any given event in history is to know the chain of events that led to it. Learning about the Second World War is difficult without at least a basic knowledge of the First World War and how that was influenced by the Industrial revolution. Context is vital.
Over the weekend, I picked up a book that I've long wanted to read, shown to me by a friend several years ago when it was first translated into English: A Little History of the World. First written and published in 1936 (written in six weeks - SIX), this book covers a staggering amount of history, starting from the very beginnings of human history and culture, from the prehistoric eras, and running up through to the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945. Needless to say, in 284 pages, this is not a book rife with specific details, names and dates. Rather, this is an extremely broad look at how human history progressed.
While there are plenty of details lacking, this book is not intended as a grand work of history. It's written simply, for a younger audience, to tell the tale of our existence - it helps to provide a broad context for our history to anyone who is mildly interested in the subject, and at this, the book succeeds wonderfully. As a student of history, I can appreciate the task at hand, and having read through the book in a day, I was astounded at just how much information is here. Almost every major era of human history is covered, and linked to the next - reading over the pages, we move from the Egyptian dynasties to ancient Babylon, to Greece, to Rome, to the Middle Ages and so on, up through to the present day. Most of the major events in the world are touched upon, but only so much to move the story along from point to point.
While there is a high degree to completeness to this volume, there are aspects of history that are not examined, even lightly - the American Civil War is talked about briefly, but only in the context of the role of Slavery (which is really not the right way to examine the war) nor is the European involvements in Africa really looked at, except in the context of the buildup to the First World War. This book is largely a view of the world through Western eyes, and talk from the Americas and Asia aren't really examined as much, which is a disappointment, not out of any sort of nationalistic sense, but to the degree to which some of the major events in US history have played in the world - the Great Depression is not mentioned (although the history here really ends after the end of the First World War), but there is very little about the history of Central and South America or Africa. Reading the preface, it was mentioned that Gombrich intended to expand the book with the translation of an English version that would have talked more about Shakespeare, the Bill of Rights and the English Civil War, but he passed away before he was able to do this. I would have been interested to see how he would have characterized the rest of the 20th century, with the incredible changes and advancements that we have experienced since the end of the Second World War.
That being said, this book is a good examination of the world from a very high level - while smaller details are largely not talked about (specific important battles, such as Marathon, Waterloo, etc, are mentioned), the notion of how all these events fit together is the dominant one - specific knowledge of battles is not really necessary at most points, save when they are truly decisive historically, changing the course of nation's histories. In my day of reading the book, I feel that I have a somewhat better understanding about how parts of the world fit together - while I knew most of the details of what had gone on, there were points in history where I was fuzzy on the broad details. This is a book that I wish I had read when I was in middle or high school, because of the broad examination here.
An interesting point that I found here was the voice to which Gombrich takes throughout - very light, and while military matters are covered frequently, warfare is never glorified - the preface notes that the publication of the book in Germany was halted because it was deemed too pacifist in Nazi Germany.
On an aesthetic level, the book is easy to read - the language is simple, intended for somewhat older children, and is divided into forty short chapters, each with a specific section of history. One of the most interesting parts here is the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter - a simple woodcut that is best representative of the theme or period of the chapter, which is very characteristic of the work here - it adds beauty and a bit of elegance to the pages here.
I loved every minute and every page of this book. While this is the broadest possible view of human history, it is done with skill and grace, with an impartial voice throughout, that points out our successes and our flaws as a race, with an incredible amount of wisdom behind it. To best describe this book is an introduction of history, from which any reader would be inspired to find more about any aspect of history that they so wished. I'm now going to make it a point to seek out his second major work, The Story of Art. In the meantime, this will become a treasured addition to my own library of books.
The title of this book can be somewhat misleading - A Simple History of the World might be more accurate, but A History of the World would be the best, because Gombrich has done a nearly impossible task - distilled the world's history into a concise, yet interesting story that is optimistic, critical and inspiring.
(Originally Posted to my blog)
98 of 106 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2005
There isn't much I can add much to the other reviews, but I just wanted to say that A Little History of the World is the best overview of world history for children that I've ran across. I highly recommend it to all the homeschoolers out there, and especially those who have children with attention disorders. My daughter does and this book completely held her attention and even had her asking questions. I can't praise this book highly enough.
55 of 60 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2005
this relates history as if an older relative were sitting down and telling a child a story. full of mysteries, adventures and surprises...beautifully written...
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on July 12, 2008
I read a lot of books. Some would say that I read too many. Over the years, I've read some really great stuff. But this is one of the few books that I truly fell in love with. As I was reading it, I found myself saying, "I love this book!" over and over again. It's a quick read, divided into short chapters that can be read in a matter of minutes -- so even someone with a short attention span can read a chapter in a single sitting. And it is written in such an easy-to-read style that it can be understood and enjoyed by readers of any age. It was written with young readers in mind; but it is so wonderfully written that adults will love it just as much as kids will. The writing style is beautiful. I wish I could write that well. Everything is made so clear and easy to understand that it's a delight to read. It's hard to believe that this book was originally written in German and translated into English. I don't know who deserves the higher praise, E.H. Gombrich, who wrote the original German text, or Caroline Mustill, who translated it into perfect English prose. But what impresses me even more than the writing style is the content. This is simply the best history book that I've ever read. It provides an overview of all of world history from prehistoric times to the 20th century (it was originally published in 1936, and covered events up to the aftermath of World War I; but this new edition contains a final chapter that gives a brief overview of the events from World War I to roughly the end of the Cold War). And it does a masterful job of capturing the "big picture" of world history without getting bogged down in the sort of details that no one but historians really care about (as many history texts do). After reading this book, you will have a good, basic understanding of the overall course of world history. And you'll enjoy every minute of it. Imagine a history text that is never dry or boring, that is never difficult to understand, that never bogs you down in useless details you don't care about, and that is actually a pleasure to read. THIS is that history text. I would recommend it for everyone: schoolchildren, college students, and adults. (And it would make the perfect gift for a young person. Anyone who is old enough to read, understand, and enjoy Harry Potter is old enough to read, understand, and enjoy E.H. Gombrich's "A Little History of the World" -- and it's a lot more educational.)
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2012
I originally got this book for my young niece, but once I started reading, it was hard to tear myself away.
In contrast to a typical "dry" history book with facts and dates, this book's style was extremely engaging. Gombrich did not shy away from using the first person and second person, and that made the style feel very interactive. For example, the section on Alexander the Great included, "His commands could now be said to reach all the way from the Nile to Samarkand. This would probably have been enough for you or me, but Alexander was far from satisfied." More importantly, Gombrich liberally inserts his own unique interpretations of the key takeaways, which add to the charm and coherence of the book. I loved that the book interprets rather than just relates. For example, he concluded his Bronze Age section with, "They were people just like us. Often unkind to one another. Often cruel and deceitful. Sadly, so are we. But even then a mother might sacrifice her life for her child and friends might die for each other. No more and no less than often than people do today." This also illustrates the author's ability to relate ancient events and people to modern people and current practices.
In fact, what amazed me about the style is that it managed to be conversational and dynamic but the author was still able to seamlessly integrate profound observations and sweeping statements. One of my favorite sentences was the description of the Spartans and the Athenians: "Knowing how to die like that isn't easy. But knowing how to live is, perhaps, even harder." Nonetheless, the grand generalizations were balanced by carefully selected details which made the history come to life. Also, even though a lot necessarily had to be left out for this to be a "little" history, the details that were put in seemed just right. Although there are many examples of these, I particularly liked the story included in the Alexander section which related how Alexander went to see the philosopher Diogenes and was so impressed that he said " ` If I weren't Alexander I should like to be Diogenes. ` " In addition, the writing had a subtle sense of humor that made me smile as I read certain parts.
Another great thing about the book is the organization. It is split up into forty relatively short chapters, and even the chapter titles seem well thought out and incorporate a touch of poetry. Each chapter starts with some creative introduction to get the reader interested in the topic, but seems to come full circle at the end. The chapters seamlessly build on top of one another and the book felt very well integrated. I was also impressed by the way Gombrich would smoothly shift into the point of view of whatever people he was discussing while not hesitating to criticize them where needed. It felt like he really made a lot of effort to consider different perspectives and show multiple sides to each story.
Finally, it would be impossible to complete a review of the book without noting the attractiveness of the book itself. The relatively "squarish" shape of the pages, the interesting effect of the half-cover in the front, the glossy paper, the fonts, and the frequent illustrations gave the book a very luxurious feel and amplified the pleasure of reading. I also greatly enjoyed the illustrative maps.
While I suppose it could be said that the book was not entirely objective, may contain a few factual inaccuracies, leaves a lot out, and gives a disproportionate amount of attention to European history, I feel that none of these are really relevant criticisms of this particular book. The lack of complete objectivity added to the charm of the book. I'm sure the engaging style of the book more than outweighs any mistakes in detail or omissions as it makes the topic so interesting that it really encourages readers to research the topics in more depth. And while I believe the argument that a balanced view of history beyond European history is important for people to have, this particular book was clearly told from Gombrich's perspective and he did a great job covering the areas he did focus on.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2006
This is currently my favorite audiobook (and I have dozens!). It is an excellent wee book from the author of the more famous and much longer "The Story of Art" - now in its 16th edition! If The Story of Art was written for college students, this one was originally written for school children - although it is more insightful than many adult history books I have read. It is enchanting, educational and extremely entertaining! (can you tell I like adjectives beginning with "e"?!)
It is also read superbly (by Ralph Cosham) at a pace that people of all ages can easily follow.
I therefore thoroughly recommended this book for adults and children alike.
If you want more detail, go for JM Roberts' masterpiece (History of The World) a much longer (54 hour) audiobook that is also an absolute classic - but this "Little History" is the best place to start.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2006
We all learn little chapters of history at school, quite often not chronologically and certainly with little understanding of the timeline of our planet. This book, old fashioned though it may be, lays out the history of the world in simple, colorful and exciting prose, relevant to children and adults alike. Little snippets of history that I learnt in school now have a new perspective and relevance. Mr Gombrich writes very evocatively and with great respect for human strengths and weaknesses.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2006
An excellent, sweeping, review of world history written in a fashion that young people can understand and appreciate.
Most, if not all, kids will learn about world history in school piece by piece and when they do they will probably get bogged down in details like "How much corn did the Incas grow?", "What is the average rainfall in Egypt?" type "testable" minutiae that turns people off from history because they think that to know history they have to know which country grew the most apples in the 18th century.
But this book presents history in an interesting manner that shows the impact of individual people, and sweeps you from one time and place to the next one while referring back to what you already read so you can fit it all together in your mind.
I bought my copy so my three kids can "find" it on my bookshelf sometime down the road and think they've discovered a secret treasure their boring old man doesn't know about.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 20, 2006
A well written and engaging read, but the focus is narrower than the title would suggest. My 9-year-old loved having this book read to him. Be aware that the focus is very much on Western civilization, and, presumably due to the author's background, there is a disproportinate focus on the Germanic peoples. The author makes sidelong glances at China, India and the Americas, but you will have to look elsewhere for a history of these regions.
With that in mind, I can recommend the book to parents who like to read to their 4th-5th graders, or to good readers at these grade levels.