In 1936, an unemployed 26-year-old art history postgraduate in Vienna was asked by his publishing pal to look over an English history for children to see if it was worth translating into German. The ex-student reported back that it wasn’t very good and in fact, he could probably write a better history himself. His pal asked him to write a sample chapter, and liked what he turned in. If he could write the rest of the book in six weeks, he had a deal. So, young Gombrich set to work researching at his family’s home library in the morning, supplementing what he read with additional research in the afternoon at Vienna’s libraries and wrote a five-page chapter in the evening. He did this for six weeks and the manuscript went on to be published in German and numerous other European languages. The Nazis banned the book for pacifism, and he fled to London in 1936, but this 2005 edition is the first English translation which he was supervising until his death 20 years ago.
That’s a hell of a provenance for a children’s book. But don’t be fooled, there’s nothing childish about the book. Instead, it’s a very readable summary of world history from Ancient Egypt up to the fall of the Berlin Wall (the final chapter was added by Gombrich shortly before his death in 2001). What an amazing job he did, given that he was writing before Hitler was to do his worst.
Sure, the book is Eurocentric (though there are chapters on China, Japan, the Americas, Buddhism and Islam), has nothing to say about women’s history, little to say on social history and no mention of global warming, but if you can accept these omissions as the result of the times it was written in rather than any act of malice, what you will find in your hands is a thrilling, but humane trip through world history as told by the exploits of the “great men” but with an eye on their effects on the commoners, with delightful asides where Gombrich addresses his young audience directly, asking them to put themselves in the shoes of contemporaries, or where he gives nuggets of commentary (eg at the end of his chapter on the Ancient Egyptians, he states that their civilisation revered cats as gods, and tells readers that this was the only thing they were ever really correct about).
Grombrich’s later The Story of Art would prove to be his masterpiece, but A Little History is a little gem of a book. Read it, you won’t regret spending time with it.
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No. 17 of 100 books I intend to read and review in 2021.
Patrick Sherriff is an Englishman who survived 13 years working for newspapers in the US, UK and Japan. Between teaching English lessons at his conversation school in Abiko, Japan, he writes and illustrates textbooks for non-native speakers of English, releases Hana Walker mystery novels, short stories, essays and a monthly newsletter highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. Saku’s Random Book Club is his latest project to spend more time with books.