Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Around the World in 565 Pages

After a month of German-language reading (and before Japanese literature starts to dominate my blog again), it's time to catch up on a few books which were left stranded in November.  Today's book though is one that I've actually been reading on and off for a while now - with such a weighty topic, it's not a book you devour in one sitting...

Andrew Marr's A History of the World (review copy courtesy of Pan MacMillan Australia) is a companion book to a BBC television series about... well, you know.  Marr's ambitious task is to condense the history of modern humans into less than six-hundred pages, and while this is (obviously) an impossible task, he does make a good fist of it.  Like many history books, it's 'A' history, not 'The' history, and the content is necessarily selective.

We start in Africa as the first Homo Sapiens begin their journey of expansion and discovery, following our ancestors as they colonise the world, making use of natural resources (and eliminating rival human species...) wherever they end up.  From the first evolutionary jump, the rise of the hunter-gatherer society, to the industrial revolution and beyond, the reader is treated to a ring-side panoramic view of how we got to where we are today.  In the last few pages, we're also granted a glimpse into some possible futures...

Marr's focus is on people, events and places which changed the world, which means that there are some surprises in store for the casual reader.  The ancient Egyptians are virtually ignored as, according to the writer, their influence on the development  of the human race was actually fairly insignificant.  Australia barely warrants a mention, and until the rise of the modern American nation, North America is pretty much ignored.

However, A History of the World does have other surprises for us.  The most interesting feature of this book is the way in which it exposes the Euro-centric focus of pre-twentieth-century history as a bit of a lie.  While most of us Anglos have at least a passing knowledge of the Roman Empire and life in the Mediterranean, we are fairly ignorant of what was happening in China and the Middle East.  By focusing on the parallel development of cultures around the world, civilisations which were occasionally in indirect contact with each other, Marr opens up a whole new window on our history.

One example is the parallels drawn between the Roman Empire and the concurrent Han Chinese empire (with Marr concluding that the superior crossbows of the Chinese would have led them to victory in any conflict between the two superpowers).  Another is the story of the Islamic empires in the time referred to in Europe as the Dark Ages, where the Caliphates occupied land in Spain and south-eastern Europe.  There was a lot here that I was only vaguely aware of before reading Marr's analysis.

A History of the World is an excellent book, but (inevitably for this kind of book) it does have its drawbacks.  The vast scope of the book means that it needs to move along at a rapid pace, at times much too quickly for the reader to fully understand the situation.  The focus on the big movers and shakers of history was also problematic as whole regions were ignored for large stretches of the book, leaving us to speculate on what was happening between mentions.  Finally, and most importantly, there are no maps!  Thousands of years of history, constant wars, frequent name changes - and not a pictorial cheat sheet in sight :(

Despite these minor drawbacks though, A History of the World is well worth reading, a welcome addition to the small history section of my collection, and a book that most people will enjoy, no matter whether they are history buffs or newcomers to the subject.  It's a work that allows us to achieve a little perspective, showing us that as powerful as the Roman, British and Holy Roman Empires appeared (or as the current American era seems), in the light of history these periods are mere blips.  In a time when we can be forgiven for thinking that history has almost come to its conclusion, Marr's book reminds us that this is unlikely to be how the story ends...