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Thoughts from Linda:

As school is beginning in America amid a pandemic, children are headed back to classrooms, in schools and in homes, in a wide variety of situations. Among many subjects, history is being taught. These two books offer interesting tools for parents and teachers to help in this effort!

 

We are profiling two books of history, two brilliant authors with similar motivations, but the books are differentiated by nearly 100 years. 

 

This month we are featuring as ‘something old’ a book by E.H. Gombrich (perhaps best known for his History of Art) that is called A Little History of the World and is aimed at children. It was written over a 6-week period prior to WWII from the perspective of an Austrian scholar. It was aimed at young children and is intended to be read aloud.

 

 

 

A Little History of the World

 

“I have known many people who were children at a time before either Germany or Italy existed.”

 

Imagine a book that tells the ‘history of the world’ written by a charming grandfatherly scholar and tells it in such a simple and interesting way that children would be mesmerized by it. That is the impact of this man who indeed did know people who lived prior to there even being a Germany or Italy.  Wow. 

 

The story of how this book came to be written is a big part of the story itself. 

 

That story begins in 1935 in Vienna, Austria, when Ernst Gombrich was a young man who had just graduated from college with a doctorate degree, but with the Global Depression, was unemployed and had few job prospects. 

 

A friend asked him to take a look at a small English history book intended for British children.  He read it and explained to the publisher that it was probably “not worth translating” and that “I think I could write a better one myself.” 

 

As the saying goes, “be careful what you ask for.” The publisher took him up on it and asked him to write a chapter on any topic he chose. He wrote a chapter on the Age of Chivalry, submitted it and very quickly was given a target of 6-weeks to complete the entire book in order to meet the publisher’s deadline. Later, Gombrich noted that he was exhausted from academic reading and writing and strongly felt that it should be possible and was in fact, quite desirable, to be able to explain most things to an intelligent child without “jargon or pompous language.” 

 

He developed his criteria for selecting topics throughout history for focus:  those that had touched the most lives and those which were best remembered. Then, he used the mornings to read about the topic from books at his parents’ home (including a big encyclopedia) and would go to a library in the afternoon where he would read more from whatever he could find on the topic. At night, he wrote the chapter, planning to write one chapter each day. He finished the book in six weeks and it was published in Austria in 1936, as Europe was approaching war. It was called Eine kurze Weltgeschichte fur junge Leser. (A Brief World History for Young Readers)

 

He and his family moved to England prior to the war and the first edition of this little book went into a desk, while he focused on his second book, the internationally acclaimed, six-million-copy bestseller, The Story of Art.

 

A Little History was not translated into English until the 1990’s when Gombrich himself completed the translation. He had worried that it represented a “too European” view of history for an English audience, although this has not been the case at all.

 

He was careful to acknowledge that this is not to be a substitute for any formal history text, saying, “I want to stress that this book is not, and never was, intended to replace any textbooks of history that may serve a very different purpose at school. I would like my readers to relax, and to follow the story without having to take notes or to memorize names and dates. In fact, I promise that I shall not examine them on what they have read!”

 

The book has 40 chapters, beginning with “Once Upon a Time.” Most are short (made to order for the Twitter generation) running at 5-7 pages on average and are beautifully illustrated by a former riding instructor (Gombrich would note that the horses are more detailed than the people in fact.)

 

Other chapters include one on the alphabet entitled “I C-A-N-R-E-A-D,” a super chapter on the ancient Greeks entitled, “Two Small Cities in One Small Land,” and a simplified and clear chapter on the French Revolution called, “A Very Violent Revolution.”

 

I encourage you to find a child and read parts of this to them. 

 

As Edward Rothstein, from the New York Times notes, “This … is a remarkable book, written in an amiable, conversational style, effortlessly explaining, without condescension, difficult matters like the achievements of Charlemagne, the monetary system of medieval Europe and the ideas of the Enlightenment…This resurrected history deserves reading for all its delights.”

 

For those of us with a lifelong passion for history and the telling of the story, this is truly a gift for the ages.