Book: A Little History of the World

A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich
I read this as a PDF on an iPod. The paperback version would probably earn five jameskennedybeijing stars. I’ve been reading this in bed.

Perfect Middle School World History Reader. Adults should read this with children.
305 pages, ★★★★ (probably five stars in paperback) 

A Little History of the World is delightful to read. It’s written in verbatim speech, more like a bedtime story than a history textbook. The author, E. H. Gombrich, wrote this book extremely fast: sometimes one chapter per day, and very little editing was done before publication. The book therefore retains an original, colloquial style. That adds character.

Gombrich brings an obvious Greece/Rome/Europe-centric bias to this book. Very little space is devoted to flourishing ancient cultures in China, India, Africa and the pre-colonial Americas. In fact, the sole chapter on Chinese Buddhism was written not by Gombrich, but by a guest author. I suggest reading this book in conjunction with both Quick Access to Chinese History and China’s History for a more balanced picture.

I like how Gombrich sets the historical background for world-changing ideas: Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism and Marxism, according to Gombrich, were inevitable results of social situations at different times. He explains the social background for each of these philosophies, and introduces each of them as a “solution to a major historical problem”. Historical atrocities are thus a little easier to accept. This suits children.

E. H. Gombrich tells stories less like a professional historian and more like a grandfather. His style is colloquial and his account of history is not 100% correct—he corrects his errors in the final chapter—but his vivid descriptions of character and situations are always memorable.

I’d read this to primary school students at bedtime; and I’d teach this to middle school students after school. A Little History of the World lends itself extremely well to annotations, research projects and extra homework assignments. It’s a book designed for adults to read with children. ★★★★

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