Thursday, January 13, 2011

J.M.Roberts' History of the World!

Our book today is surely a great big book on which everyone can agree: J.M. Roberts' 1150-page 1976 masterpiece now called The Penguin History of the World. This volume has gone through many incarnations and many editions, but it remains what it's always been: one of the most erudite, readable, and downright useful thousand-page books ever written. There's an informal yardstick I use in determining such things, and it takes the form of a single question: how often do I find a copy of the book (often in the tattered condition that connotes frequent consultation) located squarely in the small, separate company of those books we really use, the ones we go back and back to for the simple reason that when we have questions, they provide the right answers?

I have found the Roberts book in many, many such small select companies of books - and indeed, it's in my own. People who've used it understand this perfectly - other world histories are more visually sumptuous (DK's takes the prize, of course), and many dress out at even greater length, and some - fewer than you might think - are actually almost as insightful (Clive Ponting's unconventional World History: A New Perspective from 2000 - at a thoroughly respectable 920 pages - is a good example of this kind of rare exception, extremely thoughtful and at times eloquently written, although even in that case, there's something missing - Roberts' subtlety and bone-dry humor, perhaps), but even in the most prestigiously competitive bracket, Roberts stands out. It holds a special place in my own reading heart, and I know for a fact it's worked the same magic on many other readers - some of whom got their copies from me, but many, many others of whom must have come across the book on their own and been won over without any brow-beating from yours truly!

I think a bit part of the book's appeal is the way it somehow manages to combine 'accessible' with 'magisterial.' Roberts paints on the broadest canvas any historian can, and although his Index is many hundreds of names long, this book is necessarily more summary than detail. But unlike with so many other comprehensive overviews, Roberts' summarizing never feels hurried or elusive - reading the book is like listening to the most collected, poised history professor imaginable has he broadens and narrows his focus according to his subject matter.

But for me, the signal genius of Roberts' book is his sheer presence throughout it. He wrote this behemoth well before the advent of the Internet, which has both fragmented and consolidated all historical information to an extent and on a scale not only unimagined by the serried ranks of all previous printed books but utterly unattainable by them. And that process will only continue, and it should - but assemblages of mere fact, no matter how immense, have inherent limitations, and the assembling of facts has of course never been the primary job of the historian, as both Herodotus and Thucydides understood perfectly well at the dawn of the discipline. The best historians must have an easy command of all the relevant facts, yes, but he must also think about those facts. The facts themselves are now more easily and quickly available than any printed history book could ever make them (if I reference Torquemada or Mithridates or Palladio - and if that mention sparks a reader's interest, the very first thing that reader will do is go to Google or Wikipedia or half a dozen other websites and quickly learn - absorb, even - an overview and a great number of facts about those individuals ... something that would have been either flat-out impossible to do, in Leland, Georgia at 11:30 p.m., or only spottily possible before the Internet) - which, far from invalidating the craft of history, makes first-rate historians more important than ever.

Roberts fills that role on every page of his book. That's what makes it such captivating reading - it's actually a persistent problem with this book: you tell people that a thousand-page world history is captivating reading, and they naturally don't believe you!

Take for example the section where Roberts summarizes the many shortcomings of fourth-century Athenian society - its exclusion of women, half-castes, and slaves from social franchise, its cultural high-handedness, etc. Roberts discusses these limitations as forthrightly as any other modern historian you might read - but he's also right there to tell us what he thinks of it all, and whether you agree with him or not, you can't fault the clear tenor of that thought:
It is against that background that the errors, vanities and misjudgements of Athenian politics must be seen. We do not cease to treasure the great achievements of British political culture because of the shallowness and corruptness of much of twentieth-century democracy. Athens may be judged, like any political system, but its working at its best; under the leadership of Pericles it was outstanding. It left behind the myth of the individual's responsibility for his own political fate. We need myths in politics and have net to find a better.

The epigrammatic pith of that quote is also one of the unending bounties of this book, since equally good, sharp stuff can be found on the first page:
Historical inertia is easily under-rated. This is not just a matter of what we can see. Ruins and beefeaters are picturesque, but for the most part less important than much mental and institutional history lost to sight in the welter of day-to-day events.

... and on the last:
Only two general truths emerge from the study of history. One is that things tend to change much more, and more quickly, than one might think. The other is that they tend to change much less, and much more slowly, than one might think. The past hangs around longer and is more difficult to keep peacefully buried, even by strenuous efforts, than we believe.

I've read almost every world history ever written in English in the modern age - I've poured lovingly over Walter Raleigh's great book (another of those volumes that really ought to be a Penguin Classic but still somehow isn't), tsk-tsk'd at H. G. Wells', and been bored spitless by a couple-dozen 20th century volumes - but I've never found any example of that kind of work that felt like a companion in the sense I've described often here at Stevereads ... until this fantastic tome appeared and kept getting reprinted and repackaged until it finally caught my attention. Like everybody, I have a sentimental soft spot for a certain world history, and Roberts isn't it, but his book is that sentimental favorite for two generations of demanding readers, and rightfully so. The events of 9/11 put that last-page assertion of his to a terrifying acid-test (when you read the line in those earlier volumes about "the many reminders given us in the Middle East that the wars of the Ottoman succession which began long ago in the eighteenth century in south-east Europe are still unfinished," you get a chill), and subsequent editions have a new concluding chapter which really ought to be printed separately as a pamphlet on the power and wisdom of the historian's craft.

But no matter which edition you happen upon in your local used bookshop, snap it up immediately - and clear some reading time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He also did a History of the 20th Century that I think is superb--and as you say, incredibly readable.