A book I love: A Little History of The World by E.H.Gombrich

During the riots of the recent weeks, in Clapham Junction, it was noted that Waterstones was left relatively untouched. Had the rioters ventured into Waterstones and read (getting even more tenuous here…) A Little History of the World, they may have been surprised to hear of their predecessors in title, the original ‘Vandal’ tribe, who would have surpassed them in their appetite for wanton destruction as they ravaged Sicily and Italy, enthusiastically looting and burning the coastal towns in 439AD.

Gombrich’s book was written in 1935, when he was invited to attempt a history of the world for younger readers. The result is an engrossing account of global history, told without being patronising and with the boring bits left out. I’m almost loathe to mention the ‘written for children’ angle as this book provides a fascinating and compelling narrative,  joining the dots between most adults’ somewhat sketchy knowledge of history. Gombrich explains at a breakneck pace and in a conversational style that makes history feel more like an action drama than the dry 1066,Tudors,World War package many adults received at school.

Gombrich describes history as a river, with rippling waves. He compels us to look carefully as  ‘Over and over again, new bubbles come to the surface and then vanish in time with the waves. For a brief instant they are lifted on the wave’s crest and then they sink down and are seen no more. We are like that.’ A Little History gives us  a sense of perspective, a realisation of some of the continuties of human nature over time, and stimulates the reader to think.

Gombrich’s book (banned in Nazi Germany for being ‘too pacifistic’) is a lesson in humanism; if only the courts could prescribe it as reading for the rioters!


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