A Little History of the World

A Little History of the World


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E. H. Gombrich’s bestselling history of the world for young readers tells the story of mankind from the Stone Age to the atomic bomb, focusing not on small detail but on the sweep of human experience, the extent of human achievement, and the depth of its frailty. The product of a generous and humane sensibility, this timeless account makes intelligible the full span of human history. In forty concise chapters, Gombrich tells the story of man from the stone age to the atomic bomb. In between emerges a colorful picture of wars and conquests, grand works of art, and the spread and limitations of science. This is a text dominated not by dates and facts, but by the sweep of mankind’s experience across the centuries, a guide to humanity’s achievements and an acute witness to its frailties.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300143324
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/07/2008
Series: Little Histories
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 44,042
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 13 - 17 Years

About the Author

Among E. H. GOMBRICH’s many writings are the international bestsellers The Story of Art and Art and Illusion. He was director of the Warburg Institute of the University of London from 1959 to 1976.

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Copyright © 1985 DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag GmbH und Co. KG, Cologne, Germany
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-10883-4

Chapter One

Once Upon a Time

All stories begin with 'Once upon a time'. And that's just what this story is all about: what happened, once upon a time. Once you were so small that, even standing on tiptoes, you could barely reach your mother's hand. Do you remember? Your own history might begin like this: 'Once upon a time there was a small boy' - or a small girl - 'and that small boy was me.' But before that you were a baby in a cradle. You won't remember that, but you know it's true. Your father and mother were also small once, and so was your grandfather, and your grandmother, a much longer time ago, but you know that too. After all, we say: 'They are old.' But they too had grandfathers and grandmothers, and they, too, could say: 'Once upon a time'. And so it goes on, further and further back. Behind every 'Once upon a time' there is always another. Have you ever tried standing between two mirrors? You should. You will see a great long line of shiny mirrors, each one smaller than the one before, stretching away into the distance, getting fainter and fainter, so that you never see the last. But even when you can't see them any more, the mirrors still go on. They are there, and you know it.

And that's how it is with 'Once upon a time'. We can't see where it ends. Grandfather's grandfather's grandfather's grandfather ... it makes your head spin. But say it again, slowly, and in the end you'll be able to imagine it. Then add one more. That gets us quickly back into the past, and from there into the distant past. But you will never reach the beginning, because behind every beginning there's always another 'Once upon a time'.

It's like a bottomless well. Does all this looking down make you dizzy? It does me. So let's light a scrap of paper, and drop it down into that well. It will fall slowly, deeper and deeper. And as it burns it will light up the sides of the well. Can you see it? It's going down and down. Now it's so far down it's like a tiny star in the dark depths. It's getting smaller and smaller ... and now it's gone.

Our memory is like that burning scrap of paper. We use it to light up the past. First of all our own, and then we ask old people to tell us what they remember. After that we look for letters written by people who are already dead. And in this way we light our way back. There are buildings that are just for storing old scraps of paper that people once wrote on - they are called archives. In them you can find letters written hundreds of years ago. In an archive, I once found a letter which just said: 'Dear Mummy, Yesterday we ate some lovely truffles, love from William.' William was a little Italian prince who lived four hundred years ago. Truffles are a special sort of mushroom.

But we only catch glimpses, because our light is now falling faster and faster: a thousand years ... five thousand years ... ten thousand years. Even in those days there were children who liked good things to eat. But they couldn't yet write letters. Twenty thousand ... fifty thousand ... and even then people said, as we do, 'Once upon a time'. Now our memory-light is getting very small ... and now it's gone. And yet we know that it goes on much further, to a time long, long ago, before there were any people and when our mountains didn't look as they do today. Some of them were bigger, but as the rain poured down it slowly turned them into hills. Others weren't there at all. They grew up gradually, out of the sea, over millions and millions of years.

But even before the mountains there were animals, quite different from those of today. They were huge and looked rather like dragons. And how do we know that? We sometimes find their bones, deep in the ground. When I was a schoolboy in Vienna I used to visit the Natural History Museum, where I loved to gaze at the great skeleton of a creature called a Diplodocus. An odd name, Diplodocus. But an even odder creature. It wouldn't fit into a room at home - or even two, for that matter. It was as tall as a very tall tree, and its tail was half as long as a football pitch. What a tremendous noise it must have made, as it munched its way through the primeval forest!

But we still haven't reached the beginning. It all goes back much further - thousands of millions of years. That's easy enough to say, but stop and think for a moment. Do you know how long one second is? It's as long as counting: one, two, three. And how about a thousand million seconds? That's thirty-two years! Now, try to imagine a thousand million years! At that time there were no large animals, just creatures like snails and worms. And before then there weren't even any plants. The whole earth was a 'formless void'. There was nothing. Not a tree, not a bush, not a blade of grass, not a flower, nothing green. Just barren desert rocks and the sea. An empty sea: no fish, no seashells, not even any seaweed. But if you listen to the waves, what do they say? 'Once upon a time ...' Once the earth was perhaps no more than a swirling cloud of gas and dust, like those other, far bigger ones we can see today through our telescopes. For billions and trillions of years, without rocks, without water and without life, that swirling cloud of gas and dust made rings around the sun. And before that? Before that, not even the sun, our good old sun, was there. Only weird and amazing giant stars and smaller heavenly bodies, whirling among the gas clouds in an infinite, infinite universe.

'Once upon a time' - but now all this peering down into the past is making me feel dizzy again. Quick! Let's get back to the sun, to earth, to the beautiful sea, to plants and snails and dinosaurs, to our mountains, and, last of all, to human beings. It's a bit like coming home, isn't it? And just so that 'Once upon a time' doesn't keep dragging us back down into that bottomless well, from now on we'll always shout: 'Stop! When did that happen?'

And if we also ask, 'And how exactly did that happen?' we will be asking about history. Not just a story, but our story, the story that we call the history of the world. Shall we begin?

Chapter Two

The Greatest Inventors of All Time

Near Heidelberg, in Germany, somebody was once digging a pit when they came across a bone, deep down under the ground. It was a human bone. A lower jaw. But no human beings today have jaws like this one. It was so massive and strong, and had such powerful teeth! Whoever owned it must have been able to bite really hard. And must have lived a long time ago for the bone to be buried so deep.

On another occasion, but still in Germany - in the Neander valley - a human skull was found. And this was also immensely interesting because nobody alive today has a skull like this one either. Instead of a forehead like ours it just had two thick ridges above the eyebrows. Now, if all our thinking goes on behind our foreheads and these people didn't have any foreheads, then perhaps they didn't think as much as we do. Or at any rate, thinking may have been harder for them. So the people who examined the skull concluded that once upon a time there were people who weren't very good at thinking, but who were better at biting than we are today.

But now you're going to say: 'Stop! That's not what we agreed. When did these people live, what were they like, and how did they live?'

Your questions make me blush, as I have to admit that we don't know, precisely. But we will find out one day, and maybe you will want to help. We don't know because these people didn't yet know how to write things down, and memory only takes us a little way back. But we are making new discoveries all the time. Scientists have found that certain materials, such as wood and plants and volcanic rocks, change slowly but regularly over a very long period of time. This means that we can work out when they grew or were formed. And since the discoveries in Germany, people have carried on searching and digging, and have made some startling finds. In Asia and Africa, in particular, more bones have been found, some at least as old as the Heidelberg jaw. These were our ancestors who may have already been using stones as tools more than a hundred and fifty thousand years ago. They were different from the Neanderthal people who appeared about seventy thousand years earlier and inhabited the earth for about two hundred thousand years. And I owe the Neanderthal people an apology, for despite their low foreheads, their brains were no smaller than those of most people today.

'But all these "about"s, with no names and no dates ... this isn't history!' you say, and you are right. It comes before history. That is why we call it 'prehistory', because we only have a rough idea of when it all happened. But we still know something about the people whom we call prehistoric. At the time when real history begins - and we will come to that in the next chapter - people already had all the things we have today: clothes, houses and tools, ploughs to plough with, grains to make bread with, cows for milking, sheep for shearing, dogs for hunting and for company, bows and arrows for shooting and helmets and shields for protection. Yet with all of these things there must have been a first time. Someone must have made the discovery. Isn't it an amazing thought that, one day, a prehistoric man - or a woman - must have realised that meat from wild animals was easier to chew if it was first held over a fire and roasted? And that one day someone discovered how to make fire? Do you realise what that actually means? Can you do it? Not with matches, because they didn't exist. But by rubbing two sticks together until they become so hot that in the end they catch fire. Have a go and then you'll see how hard it is!

Tools must have been invented by someone too. The earliest ones were probably just sticks and stones. But soon stones were being shaped and sharpened. We have found lots of these shaped stones in the ground. And because of these stone tools we call this time the Stone Age. But people didn't yet know how to build houses. Not a pleasant thought, since at that time it was often intensely cold - at certain periods far colder than today. Winters were longer and summers shorter. Snow lay deep throughout the year, not only on mountain tops, but down in the valleys as well, and glaciers, which were immense in those days, spread far out into the plains. This is why we say that the Stone Age began before the last Ice Age had ended. Prehistoric people must have suffered dreadfully from the cold, and if they came across a cave where they could shelter from the freezing winds, how happy they must have been! For this reason they are also known as 'cavemen', although they may not have actually lived in caves.

Do you know what else these cavemen invented? Can't you guess? They invented talking. I mean having real conversations with each other, using words. Of course animals also make noises - they can cry out when they feel pain and make warning calls when danger threatens, but they don't have names for things as human beings do. And prehistoric people were the first creatures to do so.

They invented something else that was wonderful too: pictures. Many of these can still be seen today, scratched and painted on the walls of caves. No painter alive now could do better. The animals they depict don't exist any more, they were painted so long ago. Elephants with long, thick coats of hair and great, curving tusks - woolly mammoths - and other Ice Age animals. Why do you think these prehistoric people painted animals on the walls of caves? Just for decoration? That doesn't seem likely, because the caves were so dark. Of course we can't be sure, but we think they may have been trying to make magic, that they believed that painting pictures of animals on the walls would make those animals appear. Rather like when we say 'Talk of the devil!' when someone we've been talking about turns up unexpectedly. After all, these animals were their prey, and without them they would starve. So they may have been trying to invent a magic spell. It would be nice to think that such things worked. But they never have yet.

The Ice Age lasted for an unimaginably long time. Many tens of thousands of years, which was just as well, for otherwise these people would not have had time to invent all these things. But gradually the earth grew warmer and the ice retreated to the high mountains, and people - who by now were much like us - learnt, with the warmth, to plant grasses and then grind the seeds to make a paste which they could bake in the fire, and this was bread.

In the course of time they learnt to build tents and tame animals which until then had roamed freely around. And they followed their herds, as people in Lapland still do. Because forests were dangerous places in those days, home to large numbers of wild animals such as wolves and bears, people in several places (and this is often the case with inventors) had the same excellent idea: they built 'pile dwellings' in the middle of lakes, huts on stilts rammed deep in the mud. By this time they were masters at shaping and polishing their tools and used a different, harder stone to bore holes in their axe-heads for handles. That must have been hard work! Work which could take the whole of the winter. Imagine how often the axe-head must have broken at the last minute, so that they had to start all over again.

The next thing these people discovered was how to make pots out of clay, which they soon learnt to decorate with patterns and fire in ovens, although by this time, in the late Stone Age, they had stopped painting pictures of animals. In the end, perhaps six thousand years ago (that is, 4000 BC), they found a new and more convenient way of making tools: they discovered metals. Not all of them at once, of course. It began with some green stones which turn into copper when melted in a fire. Copper has a nice shine, and you can use it to make arrowheads and axes, but it is soft and gets blunt more quickly than stone.

But once again, people found an answer. They discovered that if you add just a little of another, very rare, metal, it makes the copper stronger. That metal is tin, and a mixture of tin and copper is called bronze. The age in which people made themselves helmets and swords, axes and cauldrons, and bracelets and necklaces out of bronze is, naturally, known as the Bronze Age.

Now let's take a last look at these people dressed in skins, as they paddle their boats made of hollowed-out tree trunks towards their villages of huts on stilts, bringing grain, or perhaps salt from mines in the mountains. They drink from splendid pottery vessels, and their wives and daughters wear jewellery made of coloured stones, and even gold. Do you think much has changed since then? They were people just like us. Often unkind to one another. Often cruel and deceitful. Sadly, so are we. But even then a mother might sacrifice her life for her child and friends might die for each other. No more but also no less often than people do today. And how could it be otherwise? After all, we're only talking about things that happened between three and ten thousand years ago. There hasn't been enough time for us to change!

So, just once in a while, when we are talking, or eating some bread, using tools or warming ourselves by the fire, we should remember those early people with gratitude, for they were the greatest inventors of all time.

Excerpted from A LITTLE HISTORY of THE WORLD by E. H. GOMBRICH Copyright © 1985 by DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag GmbH und Co. KG, Cologne, Germany. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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A Little History of the World 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 44 reviews.
BrooklynNY More than 1 year ago
This book shuld be requied reading for all kids and even though I am not one I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Gombrich fascinating tale of our history highlighting the important accomplishments and the inhumane moments. Especially in these tense world times this book is a great reminder of how intolerance and hate have gotten us into trouble throughout history and how we can learn from past mistakes. The only way we can evolve our world where all of the people contained live in peace is through tolerance of one another. Funny thing is Christianity and Islam were founded on those very principles as you will learn in this book - how far we've deviated from these ideals is saddening.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book on the recommended school summer reading table. This is one of the best little history books I've read. It is written as if the author is telling you a story. I learned little facts that I didn't know. This is an easy, fun, and interesting read. It is really good for the kid who doesn't like to read, but is required to do some summer reading. It is also good for anyone looking for a good book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This man covers a brief area of history in record time. His publisher asks him to do the same for ALL history. He employs his entire family. They write a little history of the world (in record time). Not only is it informative (filled with lots of unknown facts) but because it is so concise, it is actually an entertaining history of the world. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I gave this to my 15 year old grandaughter and here is her response: "The book is magnificent! The way the author portrays his thoughts and research is very conversational. It makes the book very easy to understand and to remember. I am taking a World History course in the fall so this is perfect preparation for that."
Anonymous 11 months ago
reads easy and rather informative
eglinton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Charming and readable, thanks to a personal tone, and bold woodcut-style illustrative blocks. The genesis of the work is impressive too: Gombrich knocked it off in a few weeks in his 20s with youthful scholarly hubris. He remains humble, when treating of grand themes and people, but the work feels ultimately unreliable, most of all in its Eurocentrism. This may be forgivable in a book conceived almost a century ago, but still rankles a little for a work appointing itself a history of the world. Africa, the Americas are ignored, ancient Asian civilisations are admitted as colourful noises off. All of which leaves lots of the colour commentary as pure Sellers and Yeatman: "The Merovingian kings were not much good at ruling. They had flowing hair and long beards and they did nothing but sit one their thrones and parrot the words their advisers had taught them."
edgeworth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've been getting more interested in history lately, and what I've really wanted to read is a history book that covers the entire world - focusing not on one period of time, or one geographic area, but on the entire history of the entire world. That would obviously be a daunting book both to write and to read, and wouldn't be able to go into much depth, but even a basic analysis would do much to address the hodge-podge absorption of historical knowledge that I (and, I assume, most people) currently have.A lot of what we know about history we obtain from popular culture, associating it with a certain set of visual motifs (fashion, architecture, manners of speech etc.) The 1890s I associate with London in Victorian England; the 1870s and 1880s with the American West; the early 1800s with the Napoleonic Wars and Australian early settlement, and so on. The further back, the less I know, and the more likely I am to associate a period in time with one particular piece of art or popular culture; the early 1700s, for example, is Pirates of the Caribbean, the early 1600s the plays of Shakespeare, then there's that whole vague medieval era of knights and castles...My point is we (or at least I) tend to associate certain time periods with certain places, and history books that focus on only one region reinforce that view. 1812, for example, was the time of Napoleon and the teething problems of American independency, but I have only a dim idea of what was occurring at the same time in Asia and Africa and India and so on. What I want is a book that slowly takes us through the ages and shows us how all these different people related to each other at the time; the shifting stages of human relationships. Any decent historian, of course, knows that history isn't about memorising dates, but rather about the way human society works and how we interact with each other. The precise date of a war is not remotely as important as why it was fought, who was fighting in it, and what people thought about it at the time.I'm now four paragraphs in and I haven't mentioned the book. Gombrich's "Little History of the World" is not precisely the book I'm looking for, but it's a good start. It covers the entire sweep of human history from paleolithic times to World War I (it was originally written in 1935) and, being aimed at children, it's extremely readable. This recent edition has been by far the best selling book at my store over the last few months, so I figured it was worth a look.Gombrich has an amicable, conversational style of writing, as though he were holding a child on his knee and telling them a story - and he is telling a story, because he quite clearly states in the opening chapter that that's all history is. I was lucky enough to have an excellent history teacher in high school who was well aware of what really matters in history, rather than pushing the antiquated John Howard style of teaching, but Gombrich must have been quite the pioneer back in the early 30s. He regularly stops to point out that history is not merely a long flow of empires and political shifts, but that human society can also be greatly altered by shifts in opinion, and that it is a fallacy to assume that people hundreds or thousands of years ago were effectively the same as us:If you could talk to a gentlemen from the time of the Turkish siege, there would be many things about him that would surprise you... but nothing could prepare you for the shock you would have if he were to begin to air his views. All children should be thrashed. Young girls (no more than children) should be married (and to men they barely know). A peasant's lot is to toil and not complain. Beggars and tramps should be whipped and put into chains in the marketplace for everyone to mock. Thieves should be hanged and murderers publicly chopped into pieces. Witches and the other harmful sorcerers that infest the country should be burnt. People of different beliefs should be persecuted, treated as outc
yarkan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A pleasant over view of things. Now I see that the French Revolution didn't really help things much.He said something about Japan being the best student of the world after the Meiji Restoration.
woodge on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This popular book has been around for many years in over a dozen languages but it has only recently been translated to English. (The reason why is explained in the preface.) Mr. Gombrich originally published this book in Vienna in 1936. It is written for a younger audience which results in a clear, engaging narrative. There are 40 short chapters which include sections on: Ancient Greece and Egypt, the Roman Empire, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Jesus, Mohammed, the Middle Ages, the Crusades, Charlemagne, Martin Luther, Napoleon, and so forth up to World War I. Then in the final chapter, the author talks about his experiences during World War II and his hopes for peace. It is a fascinating book, covers a lot of ground, and made many areas of history much clearer for me to understand. I highly recommend it to anyone curious about world history.
yufufi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As another reviewer said this is not a book of facts. There are many misleading statements in the book; the author is definitely not trying to be objective. For instance the Ottoman Empire is barely mentioned in the book which is weird given that they were a major player in the world history between 14th and 19th centuries. If you want to read a book about history of the world I'd recommend looking for another one.
wouterzzzzz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A history book for children, but very interesting for adults too. Especially if you don't know much about the world's history, this is a good starting point. It is biased towards Europe, so don't be offended if there's not much in there about Asia for example. Read this book first, before, for example, "Guns, Germs, and Steel" (and not the other way around).
waitingtoderail on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A good idea executed with mediocrity. This is a general history of the world written for children, but it is entirely too Eurocentric - Eastern cultures are primarily discussed only in how they related to European powers, Native Americans are discussed only briefly - and when he gets to how they interacted with Europeans he says that it is "so shameful to Europeans" that he doesn't even want to talk about it, and Africa is hardly mentioned at all. A better version of this is waiting to happen.
reedist on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is my favourite book of the last year - I'm pushing 50, my children are 6 and 8, and we all enjoyed it enormously ¿ we couldn't wait to get to the end of each day and read the next chapter. It's intelligent Central European humanism, treating the reader as an equal and engaged partner. The title clearly sets out that it isn't comprehensive, but it is an excellent and very original introduction to some of the stories that are our past. Clifford Harper's black and white illustrations (looking like drawn woodcuts) are simple, yet often intensely moving, maybe in part because they have a flavour of the past about them.
timothyl33 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Deceptive in its small size, this book however, packs a big punch. To be able to put so much history in such a simple and charming manner with its narrative style, makes this something to treasure for people of all ages.
DanCook on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A judicious, sensitive and non-triumphal telling of the whole history of the world, as much a delight to adults as children.
soylentgreen23 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When Gombrich first composed his little history, he had in mind that generation's children. That his work should remain so fresh today, and so enjoyable by adults, says many things, but above all the message is this: read this erudite, accessible history, and you shall be rewarded with a renewed faith in people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I WAS LIED TO AND CHARGED FOR THE BUY OUT FEE! When it came time to return my rental book, I followed all instructions and I had it dropped off at the nearest UPS location a week prior to the deadline. I received an email a couple weeks later stating that i was charged for an extension fee of 15$. When I attempted to track the book all it said was that the label was made, it was never scanned anywhere by the UPS. I went back to the UPS location, they looked for the package and weren't able to find it. I called customer service explaining to them the situation that the book was lost in transit and the representative LIED TO ME! she reassured me that I was NOT going to get charged the buy out fee and that she was going to refer my case to the upper management to take care of it. She told me to expect a confirmation email within 48 hours. Of course, i never received an email and when i called back to confirm the current representative said that she does not see anything about my case being referred to upper management and she doesn't see anything about attempting to resolve the buy out situation. All she sees under my order number from the previous representative was that I called regarding the extension fee I was charged. I was charged with a buy out fee of 100$. I have done everything to try and find the book and overall I HATE barnes and noble with a passion, I HATE the customer service representatives EVEN MORE! THEY ARE LIARS AND HAVE NO CLUE WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT!
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ShawnCVT More than 1 year ago
If you wanted to know about the history of the world prior to World War 2, this would be an excellent starter audio book. The original book was written shortly after World War 2.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is a good book although it has wrong info
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