Monday 20 December 2010

E.H. Gombrich - A Little History of the World

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. E.H. Gombrich's A Little History of the World was one of my favourite non-fiction reads of the year, and a book that I wrote about half-way through here, and then all the way through on Goodreads.


Here's what I wrote earlier this week about 'A Little History', when I was just about to hit the Renaissance:

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.


Of course I have some criticisms of the book. It is without a doubt a Eurocentric history, one where Asian, Muslim and African nations and peoples are discussed only in the terms in which they impacted on European history; America features in a quite minimal way up to the point of World War II.

Gombrich also tends to cast the occasions where Muslim ('Arab') armies are beaten back as times when something terrible is averted (even if, as he notes, these cultures gave us numbers, letters, and held on to the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome whilst the Europeans had gone back to hitting each over the head with clubs).

Women feature hardly at all - Cleopatra is seduced, Joan of Arc is inspired by and inspiring with faith, Marie Antoinette is a child who gaily enters the French courts revels and quickly heads off to the guillotine.

On the other hand. I think we native New Zealanders have a tendency to think of Europe as old, deeply rooted, basically unchanging. Of course, when you start thinking about it - say, the re-drawing of boundaries post-World War I - that gets exposed as shallow thinking. But to read just how fluid the notion of "Italy" or "Germany" has been until extremely recently was still a bit of an eye-opener.

Also. A Little History of the World is, in terms of Gombrich's values, the non-fiction version of the book that has formed my moral compass, T.H. White's 'The Sword in the Stone'. Intelligence, reason, tolerance and mercy are all - wisdom is the ability, and the urge, to apply these qualities to improving the lives of the people around you.

You get the sense Gombrich saw much of the 20th century as a failing and betrayal of the values of the Enlightenment that he so treasures. World War II is the acid test of Gombrich's values. The book was published in 1935; Gombrich, part of a Jewish family, left Austria in 1938. In a conclusion written towards the end of his life, he forces himself to address happenings you sense he would rather avoid.

Although he has left the original text unchanged, he retracted his assessment of Wilson's actions at the end of World War I, and the promises the American president 'failed to keep' to Germany and Austria, leaving people deprived and justly aggrieved. Earlier in the book, writing of Spain's conquistadores in Mexico, he said:

there and in other parts of America they set about exterminating the ancient, cultivated Indian peoples in the most horrendous way. This chapter in the history of mankind is so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it.

World War II forced him to revisit this statement:

I am even more reluctant to talk about the monstrous crime that was committed in our own century - after all, this book is intended for young readers who should not have to read about such things. But children grow up, and they too must learn from history how easy it is for human beings to be transformed into inhuman beings through incitement and intolerance.

One of the best arguments I have heard for the value of reading fiction is that it teaches you empathy. That should go for non-fiction as well.

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