Reviews

'A Little History of the World': Proof that Historical Accounts Can Be Touching and Eloquent

‘Have you ever wondered’ E H Gombrich asks, ‘why people actually need money?’ He focuses, with an interesting rhetorical style, on the things that can provoke one's thinking.


A Little History of the World

Publisher: Yale University Press
Price: £25.00
Author: E H Gombrich
Length: 346 pages
Format: Hard cover
Publication date: 2011-09
Website
Amazon

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.

8

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Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

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This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

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