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A Little History of the World

E H Gombrich

(Yale University Press; US: Sep 2011)

The ‘March of Time’ style graphics on the front cover depicting dinosaurs, steam engines, bi-planes and astronauts circling a globe in silhouette set the tone for this delightful book. It’s a true artefact of a bygone age. The whole look and feel of it is intended to contradict e-books and downloadable content. The awkward little half dust-jacket on the hard cover is designed to make it difficult to hold and distract you as you pick it up.


In 40 concise chapters Gombrich takes us from ‘Once Upon a Time’ in the Stone Age to the 20th century and a new age of ‘Hope’ for global communities. This is a decidedly Western and Euro-centric version of events – make no mistake about that – and in that way it is reminiscent of so many textbooks and encyclopedias in childhood. There is, however, a warmth and coziness to Gombrich’s style that makes this more or less acceptable.


History, as we all know, is written in compromised contexts, offering only a version of events. With that in mind Gombrich’s perspective takes on an essentially personal aspect, culminating in the final chapter titled: ‘The Small Part of the History of the World which I have lived through Myself: Looking Back’. And he certainly experienced all the upheavals that the 20th century was able to offer, from his birth in Austria in 1910 to a Jewish family of musicians and intellectuals, to his work being banned by the Nazis in the 1930s and his monitoring of German radio broadcasts for the BBC during the Second World War.


Gombrich strove to remove the pressure on young minds to conform and learn by rote. He wanted such texts as this, which appeared in a first edition in Austria in 1935 as an expansion of his doctoral thesis, to alleviate the boredom of study and to be read as an enjoyable narrative of the world. Since its publication, he was able to revise it and did so before his death in 2001. He always emphasized his beloved art and culture; with science and technology given their due but certainly coming second place.


His tone, however, is very engaging. It’s like a friendly uncle telling historical tales! ‘Have you ever wondered’ he asks, ‘why people actually need money?’ He can focus, with an interesting rhetorical style, on the things that can provoke a child’s thinking. There is a lot to be said for someone who can make history on the page come ‘alive’ in the way that Gombrich does.


He describes some historical landmarks with such eloquent simplicity that one feels moved. It’s a difficult thing to pull off, but he manages to bridge the historical, sterile divide of classroom learning and help reinforce the humanity behind such events. For example, his description of the seventy-year-old Galileo’s having to renounce his findings about planetary and solar motion in order to avoid execution offers a powerful image: ‘He signed a declaration saying that he was but a poor sinner, for he had taught that the earth moved around the sun. In this way he avoided being burnt, the fate of so many of his predecessors.


Nevertheless, when he had signed the declaration, he is said to have muttered under his breath: “And yet it moves”’. (Gombrich: 227) Touching, I think you will agree. Wikipedia contributors take note: historical accounts can possess literary merit. This charming work would grace the shelves of any study, and will offer valuable information, clearly expressed, for many generations of students to come.

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Dr Gabrielle Malcolm is a writer, artist and academic based in the UK. She is known for her publications on Victorian literature and culture and her writing on Shakespeare on stage, TV and Film. She has published alongside writers such as AS Byatt in 'The Dickensian' journal, and her performance art pieces were featured in the Liverpool City of Culture celebrations in 2008, at the Liverpool Tate amongst other venues. Recent publications include a chapter in 'Writing Women of the Fin de Siecle: Authors of Change' (Palgrave McMillan, 2011). She is an avid fan of the Gothic and the Neo-Victorian. Her literary blog 'A Special Mention' has many followers and she can regularly be found tweeting @gabymalcolm, with fellow Shakespeareans and fans of Gene Kelly.


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