Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Illustrated History of the World!

Our book today is The Illustrated History of the World, and it's a response to several of you who caught the fact that when I was writing about Roberts' History of the World I mentioned that I myself had a sentimental soft spot for a world history that wasn't Roberts. Many upstanding members of the Silent Majority emailed me wondering what that sentimental favorite of mine was - and here it is.

This heavy, heavily-illustrated (there are maps, charts, and hundreds of black-and-white photos) volume was first published in 1927, edited by Sir John Hammerton and an erudite man named Harry Elmer Barnes, and its calm, accessible prose style quickly won it a reputation among schoolmasters and college professors. It sold well and was reprinted half a dozen times - a rare and heady success for those days. The edition I own was printed in late 1937 and opens with these words:
"To know nothing of the past," said an ancient philosopher, "is to understand little of the present and to have no conception of the future." Of all the branches of human knowledge, none is so essential, none so exciting, none has such practical daily usefulness as History. With the record of the past before us, we turn with serenity toward the present and move forward into the future armed for whatever may befall.

The optimism of it, given the date, is enough to make you cry.

There follows the whole panoply of human history, usually given in such useful scope and such accurate detail that I've actually continued to consult this big fat book, even despite the dozen or so more contemporary histories on the shelf next to it. And the work's two editors were no fools: they could see storm-clouds gathering in their own day, although neither they nor anyone else could predict the full horror of "whatever may befall." They conclude this volume:
City life produces new strains and stresses and leads to a great increase in mental and nervous instability. World war, using the deadly methods of destruction now available, may drag all civilization down once more to the level of barbarism. Only in the degree to which we understand the critical and transitional character of the contemporary age shall we be able to avert calamity and build a world order which will not only be new and different but better, when measured by the standards of general human well-being.

The mild socialism buried in this (our authors matter-of-factly inform us that capitalism has all but run its course) is instantly forgivable when seen in the light of how utterly their contemporary age failed to avert calamity, and I'd forgive it anyway, since it's not the business of history books to predict the future. What I enjoy most about this volume is its simple belief in the importance of facts - there are no politically correct causes in these pages, no 15 pages devoted to the Armenian Massacre and 2 pages devoted to the American Civil War, no fads or special interest distortion - the whole enterprise of it is too early for such things, and its editors, whatever their faults, too watchful.

And something about the fact that this volume contains no moon landings, no Holocaust, no Cold War or collapse of Communism, no Challenger explosion or September 11, no Internet or Twitter Revolution - something about the fact that the Persian Empire still spreads across its stately pages in this volume, that the same half-smiling Egyptian statues still stand in the Boston Museum, something about the way the past is allowed to be the past, rather than an endless series of springboards for the present, makes this volume oddly comforting to me. It reminds me how thin a film the present always is over the past.

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