A Little History of the World, by E. H. Gombrich

October 26, 2011 at 20:21 (Book Reviews, Historical, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )


The most attractive thing about this little history is the evident enthusiasm that Gombrich has for his subject. He is a dedicated teacher and his stated goal to create a history at once accessible to children but with real and significant accounts that go beyond dry textbooks and trivial stories is a noble one indeed. The most disappointing thing about this book is that he does not succeed in this goal.

The chief objection to any historian must of course be Gombrich’s inaccuracies and mistakes. Many are products of his time (particularly his treatment of the World Wars, or his account of the Dark Ages as an essentially dismal period, and a step backwards) but this is not an excuse, and it does not make his book into an objectively good history. Others are bewildering errors, such as his claim that the Holy Roman Empire was disbanded immediately after the death of Charlemagne, his incompetent summation of the foundation of various religions, and his vindictive and unwarranted pillorying of Charles I.

Quite besides the manifold errors in the book, Gombrich sets out to write a simple and engaging history (and to judge by his chapter headings, initially a history without a western bias). Some of his chapters are indeed very simple and straightforward, and even exciting to read. More of his chapters, unfortunately, are dusty litanies of kings, acts, wars, treaties, dates, begetting and begatting, political squabbling and facts denuded of any context that would make them relevant to an unlearned reader. He wastes an enormous amount of time in pursuing minutiae utterly meaningless to his general historical scope, apparently out of some misplaced loyalty to a few of history’s more flamboyant characters. The result is unwieldy and often difficult to read.

“Once upon a time the world really was full of colour and adventure, and people joyfully took part in that strange and wonderful game called chivalry…”

-A Little History of the World

The greatest criticism that ought to be levelled at Gombrich however, is the generally flacid and milquetoast attitude he takes in discussing his history. To borrow a phrase, the men and events that Gombrich describes are not bad, and they are not good. They are just…nice. Bloodthirsty warriors are not denounced, murderous kings and savage wars are shrugged off, great reformers and martyrs, writers and artists, inventors and explorers, barbarians and patriarchs are all included in his lukewarm medley with the same inarticulate passivity and unwillingness to either celebrate heartily or denounce vigorously. This rather unfortunately turns a generally well-researched and kindly-written book into an overbalanced compendium of waffle.


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