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I was 12 years old when I last took a history class. I was far more interested in science, mathematics and literature; and languages might be useful. I didn't see much point in studying history and I didn't enjoy it. Eventually I got interested in philosophy, and I ended up teaching philosophy for the last 30 or more years. But in a curious turn of events, I have also been teaching a course in ancient western culture for the last few years. I've picked up enough knowledge in the intervening decades to be able to fill the time, and I've come to realize that in order to explain cultures that are largely foreign to the students, we have to cover the historical background. As far as most of the students understand it, I'm teaching history.
When one sets about covering a wide geographical area over a long period of time, one is acutely aware of the impossibility of covering even a fraction of what happened. When looking over books on the topic, one becomes curious and critical of how other people have addressed the problem. One also becomes aware that any method of prioritizing some parts over others has to be either extremely random, idiosyncratic, or ideological. In presenting a version of events, one also needs to explain why one's chosen approach makes sense. Generally, the history also includes some explanation of why things happened the way they did, and that's a challenge since there are so many competing theories and there are few occasions where one can conclusively prove one theory is right.
So this sort of history is inevitably patchy and partial. But one still needs to have some ideal in mind of what it would be like, ideally. Even an ideal history would not include all the facts, not only because they are not available, but also because it would take longer to give the history than it took to happen. I've perused many thick textbooks of western or world history, most of which are lavishly illustrated. I've admired the work that went into creating them, and the vast amount of knowledge they represent. Yet I'm also struck by how boring they are. One damn fact after another, on and on they go. But slim volumes, or ones with more pages with pictures than with words, are equally problematic, because they have nothing much to say. They tend to present very standard approaches to the past which are so simplistic as to be more false than true.
All of this is to say that I don't envy the job of an editor of an illustrated history of the world. I'm impressed at what Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has achieved with this book. The book does indeed cover a huge expanse of time and it covers most parts of the world. There are 13 main chapters and 11 authors. It is notable and surprising that all but one of the authors is male, and all are employed by US or European universities, and one from Australia. That is a bit odd for a global history, and one can imagine that a more diverse set of authors would have come up with a somewhat different set of priorities. Nevertheless, this collection of work is striking in its approaches.
The first thing to note about the writing is that it is pitched at a high level. I would be reluctant to assign this book to an introductory undergraduate class because students would struggle. While there are no footnotes, and there are plenty of colorful pictures, this is a serious book that requires careful attention from the reader. The discussion in each chapter is complex and resists quick simplifications. This is not a book that is easy to browse. It does not go out of its way to explain basic concepts. So for example, do not expect it to remind you when the Bronze age was. You can work it out from the context of discussion in the book, but you may find yourself doing some internet searches to get some of the fundamentals clear as you read the chapters. But some chapters are good with maps which are crucial, devoting a whole page or half page with major places labeled. The illustrations and pictures look good, and many are beautiful. Sometimes it would be good to see more detail, and it would be nice to be able to expand the page to make the picture bigger. Maybe that's possible on the ebook version.
As one would expect, the book proceeds roughly chronologically, with the five main sections cutting up history into distinct parts. Each section has two or three chapters, and they overlap in the time periods they discuss. Some chapters focus more on material changes including population, climate, and the growth of different centers of power. Others focus more on art, culture, and intellectual trends. A couple of chapters are more explicitly about politics. Some do a lot of blending of all of the above. Given the huge time spans and limited space, these chapters mostly give a bird's eye view of what is going on with occasional more detailed illustrations. For example, David Northrup has a chapter titled "Intellectual Traditions: Philosophy, Science, Religion, and the Arts, 500 BCE-1250 CE." He has 31 pages, and a good deal of the space is devoted to pictures. He is covering the whole world. So ancient Greek philosophy gets a little less than a page. There is a lot on Buddhism and Christianity. But there's no real discussion, for example of the Crusades (and no other chapter deals with them either). There is very little about Africa in the chapter. So of course there are major gaps. Reading through the chapters is for me at least mostly bewildering even though I already have a rough idea of how history unfolded. As arguments unfold, one wants to say "Wait! Explain that again." But the author has already moved on to another idea.
While there are many ideas in this collection, probably one of the most striking is the prominence of climate as an explanation of historical phenomena. This is a theme shared by several chapters. The end of the last ice age of course was distinguished by global warming and changing sea levels. There have been other periods of lowered temperatures which have had major historical significance. In the final section emphasizes the changes associated with the age of industrialization. In David Christian's "The Anthropocene Epoch: The Background to Two Transformative Centuries," the author demonstrates how much the world has changed in the last few centuries in population, energy use, and the effect of human activities on the climate. The other 2 chapters in this section look at the changes in culture and the rise of popular culture, and political and religious changes in the last few hundred years. They all reflect the effect of globalization and the capitalist mindset that has become so inevitable in the contemporary world.
To be honest, reading through this volume has done little to convince me that doing such a vast survey of history is not absurd in its grasping of an impossible project. But there is plenty here to educate and challenge readers. It will help me in my own absurd teaching projects.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.