Monday, April 16, 2012

Train Reading - introducing a very short history of the world

My train reading this last week has been Geoffrey Blainey's "A very short history of the world" (Penguin Group Australia, revised edition, 2007).

In many ways, it's a very familiar book.  Many of the ideas about the changing way we see the world have been explored in Professor Blainey's other books. The sun, the moon, views of space and time are all there, if now painted on a bigger canvas. It's also in some ways an unsatisfying book because it provides just a taste of human history. I found that I wanted to know more. But then, it is (as the title says) a very short history of the world.

In reading, I looked for things that would help me better integrate the broad sweep of history, to see how things fitted together across time and space. Did it pass this test? I think it did, although there were times when I thought that more dates or even comparative tables would have helped.

  With the best will in the world, I think that this is still a Euro-centric book. In a way, that's inevitable since it is a history of the world, not of it's constituent parts. I said the best will in the world, for the writer  consciously tries to ensure full coverage. However, his strong focus on broad interactions - the way people and their societies interacted - drops other things out. Professor Blainey is also forced to generalise. Sometimes, I found myself questioning those generalisations.

One thing that the book brings out very clearly is the nature of the discontinuities between the current human present and the long human past. The last two hundred years are just a blink of the eye in human history, and yet that period saw transformations that have disconnected us from our past. The industrial revolution, the huge expansion in global populations, the revolutionary effect of new transport, the rise of the mega city, the sheer interconnectedness of previously separate groups have all contributed.

The stamp that the present places upon the past conceals the change. We see, but do not always understand.   


Legal Eagle said...

I agree with your analysis, Jim. I had very similar feelings when I read the book.

A book which is really interesting is The Great Big Book of Horrible Things. That really highlights the discontinuities and continuities in our past.

Jim Belshaw said...

I haven't read that book, LE. Will try to find a copy.

Rummuser said...

I do believe strongly that you should also read The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley who points out that we have also adapted very well to change and why there is no reason to doubt that we will, in the future too. The key argument however is his thrust towards the free economy drivel, but purely from an evolutionary and sociological points of view, one dove tails into the other.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, Ramana. I haven't read Ridley's book but will try to get a copy.

Chris Lascelles said...

Hi Jim. I drew a world history timeline for my Short History of the World. on which I would welcome people's comments! You can view it at Chris