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The Master's Final Word
on July 1, 2003
Anyone fascinated by world history will be delighted with the appearance of a new edition of John Robert's History of the World. His ill health mentioned in the preface made it hard work, and his recent death confirms his prophesy that this will be the final edition of this successful book. Overall Roberts provides a great summation of world history, supplying a sweeping overview with perceptive insights, and avoiding the temptation to become enmeshed in encyclopedic detail. The themes he follows, those of change and continuity, the impetus of history and the relationship between tradition and innovation in human history are well chosen and help to find a context for this daunting subject. Additionally he makes relevant the weight of the past to present events (including a very good job of bringing the book right up to date with post-9/11 events). His overall perspective on history has changed surprisingly little over the years, perhaps because one of his basic philosophies is durable; "the two phenomena of inertia and innovation continue to operate in all historical developments ... we shall always find what happens both more, and less, surprising than we expect". Sounds like a bet both ways, however thinking about recent events it is quite plausable.
The book, it is freely acknowledged by Roberts, comes from a white, middle class western perspecive, however every edition finds him attempting to balance his global coverage further, as well as expanding the text to include more on gender issues and the environment. The thinness of material on non-Western cultures, such as Africa and Latin America is more related to knowledge than bias. He certainly has always argued strongly for the "European Age" since the age of exploration and I think he tends to overemphasise its influence on the world's population as a whole (important as it was). A little more material on imperialism from the subjects perspective might have helped, although don't get the impression that the book is a whitewash.
His prose is enjoyable, although his sentance structure could be improved at times, and the book provides a servicable set of maps.
Anyone who reads this book will certainly gain a comprehensive and valuable overview of the forces of the past that manifestly continue to shape the world today, and a fine insight into the way human societies and cultures work.