A Little History of The World by E.H. Gombrich

I have this, maybe a bit snobbish, idea that I prefer to read a book in its original language, rather than a translation. Now, I barely just know three languages well enough to read a proper book. One of these languages is German however, and when I first picked up A Little History of The World by E.H. Gombrich, in English then, I was quite uncertain to if I should buy it or not. Flipping through the book I could read that the original title of the book is Eine kurtze Weltgeschichte für Junge leser . It would probably be easy to find it the next time I was over to visit some friends in Germany, and then I would not need to read a translation. (And I would have a rare chance to practice my German for once.)

However, I was did puzzled that the book was on display among the new arrivals, but that the original edition was published in Austria already in 1936; I wanted to find out why!

Starting to read the introduction inside the book, written by the authors grand daughter, I gathered that the reason for this was that E.H. Gombrich, who fled from Vienna to England at the outbreak of the second World War, had wanted to supervise the translation for himself. In the mean time he seemed to have worked on several different projects, and it seems like it was not until at the end of his long life, and with the help of his assistant, that he got around to working on A Small History… again. In addition, it seemed like this new edition was revised and somewhat reworked. Not to mention the absolutely beautiful illustrations by Clifford Harper. I could not determine, and am still not sure of, if this edition of the book even exists in a German language version. I bought it.

So, what is it about, and how is it? Well, as the English title tells us it is a history book, and as the German title adds, it is for young readers. I would not say that it is generally of the world, but about the western world, and then especially the world shaped by continental Europe. Although the author certainly has chapters on other parts of the history of the world.

A Little History… is divided into forty chapters, each one targeting a period or event in world history. From the first civilizations to the First World War. The target audience is young readers, or kids who get the story read to them. This does not mean that the book is not suited for mature readers and adults. Gombrich does not tell children's tales, he writes about history, but in a storytelling manner; and he does so without dodging some really terrible moments of European history. Moments that other authors may have a hard time explaining to children, either because they are to shameful or violent.

Gombrich on the other hand have realized that also children know these concepts, and does not pretend they did not happen. He seems to believe (and rightly so I think) that history's darkness (just as its light) can serve to teach humanity how to become better in the future. And the future belongs to the young of course.

This does not mean that the book is a long stretch of dark, sad tales. On the contrary, most of it is a tale of the fine moments of civilization, of discoveries and adventures. And how it is told! The writing style is magnificent, with a tone of a storyteller of old. Gombrich writes to the reader as the grandfather weaving stories of his youth to a spellbound child. I think it is a very nice way of presenting the European part of history, and something that would make this book very suitable for reading aloud I believe.

Now, one of the quirks of history is that most of it is so subjective. It is not for nothing that one usually say that the history of war is written by the victorious. History, and what it teaches can be very viral ideas. So, what about A Little History of the World?

Well, yes of course Gombrich own history and culture has influenced parts of the book. One obvious proof is that it is very focus on European history. However, for the most the author has tried hard to write objectively, and only put in human values and morals. Overall these values are very good, and appeals more to natural, humanistic instincts in good and bad rather than to lean to many political or religious ideas. Maybe a couple of chapters are leaning a bit towards Christianity, and the historic facts towards the Habsburg empire. (But who is truly objective? The Swedish history taught to me in school clearly was not!) However, (assuming that not too much where changed between the editions) it is overall impressive for a book written over 70 years ago in its human values!

Finally this could really be a very nice and inspiring book for young people. I think I would enjoy reading it aloud to interested children, without considering to skip chapters that may, in my opinion, be unsuitable. After all, grown up forget how much kids actually does understand. This book respects that.