If I were a daring editor at Yale, living in a parallel universe where rights issues were no obstacle, I’d consider giving this incredible little book a new subtitle. I’d call it A Little History of the World: A Stunning Example of Some of the Many Things Wikipedia Cannot Do. Among the “many things” I’d cite in the blurb, the following would feature: “clarity and unity of style”, “focus and attention”, “economy of prose”, “narrative cohesion”, “a sense of commitment and guiding authorial voice”, and “a sense of humour”. The key thing I’d try to get across is that this book is wise, in the sense of your ideal teacher – someone whose example and inspiration you respect without expecting them to have all the information.
There would, of course, be things about the book I wouldn’t mention; for example, that its focus, despite repeated and valiant efforts to the contrary, can often be very “Euro-centric”, and that its generally avuncular tone can sometimes tip into straight out didacticism. What I would stress, however, is that our brave new “E-World” had better find a lasting place for narratives like this, because it will be an immensely poorer place otherwise.
And therein lies the rub: if I want information, I’ll go to Wikipedia; if I want inspiration and imagination, I’ll seek out books like A Little History. The two should co-exist, and what’s so important about this book when viewed in that light is that it has no obvious limits of “target audience” – it’s like one of those board games marked “suitable for Ages 5 to 100”; the kind of warm and magical bedtime story of which all ages and cultures secretly dream.
Famously, Gombrich wrote the book in a madcap six weeks in 1935, but this is far from evident in his prose. Following a brief foray into “prehistory”, he picks up history proper in 3,100 BC, before pressing ahead irresistibly over the next 5,100 years. The waypoints along the journey are, given the size of the book and the scale of its task, extremely well-chosen. They range over topics from the origins of monotheism and the invention of the alphabet (chapters 5 and 6 respectively), through to Columbus’ discovery of the New World (chapter 27), on to the Industrial Revolution and the First World War (chapters 38 and 39). Whatever the topic, it is difficult to find parallels for the beauty and inventiveness of Gombrich’s writing; for example, in the mere three pages that comprise chapter 1, he outlines bona fide philosophies of history, narrative and imagination, all in language accessible enough for five year olds!
It wasn’t until 2005 (and four years after Gombrich’s death) that A Little History was first published in English. In one sense, this is a travesty, causing generations of young readers to miss out on the chance of growing up with the book. In another sense, it is a blessing: first, because those readers now get a chance to become young once again by reading it for the first time; second, because those years spent out of the limelight have allowed the book to gain silent momentum (something manifest in this edition in the sensitivity of Caroline Mustill’s translation, Clifford Harper’s perfectly-pitched illustrations, and the insightful foreword by Gombrich’s grand-daughter, Leonie).
Gombrich was unemployed when he wrote this book, but he eventually found a day job as a very famous art historian and theorist. A Little History is, by now, perhaps his most well-known work, but the thread common to his greatness can still be found on the cover of the work it may have supplanted for that title, The Story of Art. Gombrich was a master storyteller, in any language, for any audience, and A Little History can hardly be recommended highly enough.