Friday 9 July 2010


In my professional life, speed is highly valued. I'm an advocate of Agile project management, for example, with its emphasis on time-boxed development periods and fast, focused releases. I've worked on numerous projects that have gone from 'here's what we want' to 'here it is' in 12 weeks. I've been to a million talks and presentations where people have preached the cult of failing fast and failing often, of rapid iteration and daily releases.

Which is why I'm currently filled with admiration for E.H. Gombrich. Start-up founders could take a lesson or two from a man who managed to summarise the history of human civilisation in under 300 pages and on a 6 week deadlines.

A Little History of the World was written in 1935, when Gombrich was 25. He'd finished his thesis, but hadn't found a job. Given an English history book for children to translate into German, he was distinctly underwhelmed by the text. He wrote a sample chapter of a rival book for the publisher, who gave him a conditional yes; the book would be published if it could be completed on the same deadline as the translation.

Gombrich worked 6 days a week on the manuscript - Sundays were spent with his wife, to whom he read each section. Each day, Gombrich would tackle a chapter: the morning for research at home, the afternoon for research at the library, and the evening for writing.

The resulting book - which I'm reading at the moment - is a marvel. Although the tone feels a little dated, especially the questions and comments directed at the intended child reader, the clarity is extraordinary. Gombrich introduces history as a long story, passed down from generation to generation. Writing history, he says, is like lighting a scrap of paper and dropping it down a deep well - the flare lights up the past as it descends. His flare lights up people, places and moments that shaped human culture, from the invention of writing to the age of chivalry.

Reviewing the book when it was finally released in English in 2005, Peter Conrad described it as a 'mental microcosm', and Lisa Jardine as "a manifesto for freedom and integrity". The thing that astounds me about the book is its personal tone - smilingly ironic, sincerely admiring, occasionally melancholy, rarely angered. Above all, it is wise and gentle - but never dull.

Review by Lisa Jardine
Review by Peter Conrad

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