Ernst Gombrich’s “A Little History of the World” is a history book written for young readers, but it is also a useful historical introduction to human development – albeit with a disproportionate focus on Europe and the West – for amateurs like me. The chronological narrative, from the time of the cavemen to the prelude of the Second World War, is not meant to be comprehensive, and instead prompts the reader to independently find out more about specific periods, themes, and even objects. This narrative and its 40 chapters, moreover, tend to revolve around and move between a particular person or a geographic area (a kingdom or a country), which allows for parallels to be drawn and for their subsequent mentions to ring bells.
The book is also not preachy, and even though Gombrich has his own opinions (expressed most poignantly in the final chapter), the emphasis is still on factual retellings and the different patterns across historical periods. “The history of the world is, sadly, not a pretty poem. It offers little variety, and it is nearly always the unpleasant things that are repeated, over and over again”, he first said, before adding: “How nice it would be if, suddenly, heralds were to ride through the streets crying: ‘Attention please! A new age is beginning!’ But things aren’t like that: people change their opinions without even noticing”. So in other words, in retrospect, it may seem straightforward to spot the ebb and flow of empires, or to evaluate the decisions of leaders, especially before impending changes, yet lived experiences can be very different.
In this vein, the read was short and enjoyable. A few minor quibbles with “A Little History of the World” concern the lack of adequate representation of Eastern history and culture, a more detailed explanation in the beginning for the shortlisting of episodes for the chapters, and perhaps even a timeline – to complement the delightful illustrations, and especially the maps, showing battle routes and the extent of conquests – marking and summarising the different periods. These points, nonetheless, pale in comparison to the positives, of an informative book which serves as a springboard for further reading in the future.