Can you imagine several thousand years of world history compressed into three hundred four pages? Before reading this book, I certainly did not and I believe the same applies to many others. However, that is exactly what Ernst Han Josef Gombrich (1909-2001) has done in this history book that came into existence as a result of challenge issued to the author to write a better history book than the one he was editing at the time. The book was written in 1935 and subsequently re-published bringing it up to date with modern history events. Gombrich never intended for the book to replace all of the history textbooks in use by teachers and professors. However, the book does serve as a complement to dozens of study aids used by students across the globe. Interestingly, the book is geared towards the ages of seven to nine years but I think that readers of all ages will find it to be quite informative.
The pace of the book is fast and once we get started with the history of the world we know before Christ, we embark on a ride that does not slow down. In fact, if there is one thing about the book that I felt detracted from it, it is that the pace is sometimes too fast leaving out critical information about various topics. One example in particular is the huge lack of information on Genghis Khan, who is mentioned in passing. Additionally, the majority of the focus is on the Middle East and Europe thereby excluding North America, Central America, Southeast Asia, South America and the majority of the continent of Africa. I do not fault Gombrich for the focus of the text. If he had written about all of those places, the book would have spanned several volumes. To appreciate what he has done here, the reader should approach the book as a quick reference guide as opposed to a sole source of historical information.
In spite of its few shortcomings, the book is a good read that is engaging, informative and contains just enough information to give it substance while warding off boredom. Gombrich was born in Austria, lived through the rise of Adolf Hitler and left Germany in 1939 before World War II plunged the world into anarchy. His comments and recollections about the Third Reich are an added but small bonus. But what is undeniably clear, is that he is a part of world history and to this day, considered one of the world’s best historians. His only child, Richard, is currently an Indologist and scholar of Sanskrit, Pāli, and Buddhist Studies and was once the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford.
After I finished the book, I was surprised at how much material Gombrich did cover over the span of three hundred pages. Compressing the text must have been a tedious job for even the best of editors. Furthermore, there always exist the question of how much to add or leave out. Perhaps no matter which way the book had gone, something would not have made the final cut. I do believe it would have been more beneficial to have included more history about the west, Southeast Asia and Africa. Undoubtedly it would have increased the number of pages but come much closer to a history of the world even if it is “little”. Nevertheless, Gombrich did a more than sufficient job of taking us back in time. And even if you are well-versed in world history, I feel that you still might enjoy this short but engaging read. For those who have children, they might appreciate this gift more than you think. Gombrich did not write the definitive book on world history but he did create and leave us with a valuable addition to any library. But as the title says, it truly is a little history of the world.