The history of the world is diverse, long, and complex. Usually we take survey courses in school that focus on a particular aspect of world history, say western civilization from 1000 to 1500 AD. But Norton (the publisher), most famous for its Norton Anthologies of English/world literature that generations of students have used in survey literature courses, has embarked upon an anthology series for history to bring world history to the masses (and probably to students, too) through the writing of historian Susan Wise Bauer.
Generally I like more focused books rather than survey books. My library has many books on specific periods or events in world history, admittedly mostly western oriented, and includes multiple books tackling a particular historical event (e.g., I have a fair number of books focused on the Dreyfus Affair of the late 19th-early 20th centuries). But I bought Bauer’s first book, The History of the Ancient World from the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, when it was released in 2007, and became hooked. Bauer and Norton released the second book in the series, The History of the Medieval World from the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, in 2010.
Both books follow the same pattern. The chapters are short, focused, conclude with a timeline, and are self-contained — each stands on its own. Particularly well-crafted explanatory maps appear throughout the books along with appropriate illustrations. The writing style is brisk and vibrant. The books are very well edited. One nice feature of the books is that because chapters are short, generally less than 20 pages, and self-contained, it is easy to read a chapter, put the book aside, and come back to the book days later without missing a beat, which makes it an easy read, even for those with short attention spans.
Most important, at least to my way of thinking, is that the survey Bauer provides isn’t western-centric. She takes us on parallel tours of east and west, covering Greece, Italy, England, Spain, China, Russia, India, Persia, Egypt, and numerous other important places. We get to see history unfold as it did in life, parallel tracks, not in isolation.
Because of her approach, in-depth analysis of important events is lacking. This is the sacrifice that has to be made when doing a survey of such a broad subject for a mass audience. On the other hand, Bauer opens the reader’s eyes to the fact that civilizations grew in parallel, not in isolation, and that the growth of one effected the growth of others. As China extended its civilization westward, the Romans moved eastward, and at some point they touched and blended and flowed back toward their epicenters, bring new knowledge and change from opposing civilizations.
By introducing the reader to all of these events and giving a broad perspective to the growth of the world, Bauer makes it possible for readers to learn a little about a lot and then pursue further in-depth research on their own. After all, it would be difficult to seek knowledge about China’s Jin dynasty, which lasted a scant 50 years, if one didn’t know it existed and wasn’t given some introduction to it that piqued one’s interest.
These first two books in the series are stellar for what they are. They are not replacements for more in-depth scholarly works about specific events; they are great introductions to the history of the world in which we live. They are written in such a manner that even young teenagers could enjoy reading these books and learn a lot in the process.
If you read only 1 (well, 2) general history books in the next year, these are the books that you should read. If you want to build a library of books for your children and grandchildren, a library of books that will introduce them to the wonders of knowledge, these 2 books should be included. I look forward to buying and reading the ensuing volumes in this series.