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Once Upon a Time
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Newsday, 23 October 2005

A LITTLE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, by E.H. Gombrich. Yale University Press, 284 pp.,
 
 
In 1935, E.H. Gombrich was not the world-renowned art historian he would later become; not even close. He was, rather, a 26-year-old scholar in Vienna with a doctorate and a girlfriend, but not much by way of promising employment prospects. He had published a little -- an academic paper analyzing a small medieval sculpture in ivory, for example. But that is not the kind of thing that helps an author pay for his groceries, least of all during a global economic depression.

So Gombrich took a couple of part-time jobs. For one, he helped a prominent psychoanalyst, Ernst Kris, who was writing a book applying Freud's ideas to the study of caricature. It was a gig with one unexpected, and extremely lucky, fringe benefit. For Kris made it a point to read the Nazi Party's daily newspaper. He knew how bad things were - and how quickly they were getting even worse. In 1936, he helped Gombrich, who was Jewish, relocate to London.

But before leaving, Gombrich did publish something a bit more marketable than his scholarly papers had been. At another part-time job, working for a publisher, he was asked to look over a children's book on history to see if it was worth translating. He didn't think so. Instead, he proposed writing one himself - a survey that ran from the dawn of mankind up through the First World War. The publisher accepted his proposal, and gave him six weeks to write the book.

As he finished each chapter, Gombrich read it to his girlfriend. They were married the following year. My guess is that the book probably had something to do with that -- and not just because of the money it brought in. The manuscript must have seemed like a pretty good advertisement for Gombrich's potential virtues as a father.

A Little History of the World (now available, at long last, in an English translation) is a masterpiece of nonfiction writing for children. It is a wry and charming book, perfectly suited to the capacities of a 10-year-old, but also remarkably free of condescension. An adult can read it with pleasure. And, indeed, with instruction, at least if you don't quite recall the historical significance of the Defenestration of Prague. (Assuming, of course, that you ever knew it.)
 
The ability to compress 5,000 years of recorded human history into not quite 300 brisk and genial pages depends largely on an author's sense of absolute confidence about what is important. And certainty of that kind isn't a purely personal matter. In other words, it rests on assumptions that the author has absorbed from his own upbringing and that he in turn expects it will be necessary for the next generation to acquire.

In Gombrich's case, it is a view of history that is unabashedly Eurocentric in focus -- with the ancient Greeks as honorary Europeans, the Roman Empire as the bedrock of subsequent political and historical reality, and the United States as an important but late (and never quite central) development. I don't call this Eurocentric with the intent of consigning the book to the bonfire -- or, for that matter, praising it. It's just the perspective that a European scholar, writing in German for young readers seven decades ago, perhaps inevitably brought to narrating the past.

And in any case, that outlook is by no means incompatible with what we now (being oh so much more enlightened) would want to call multiculturalism. Besides the chapters on the origins of Judaism and Christianity, Gombrich devotes respectful chapters to the teachings of Confucius and the Buddha -- as well as an account of Muhammad and the birth of Islam that, in its eight pages, covers more history than most Americans will ever learn on the topic.

There is something understated and unobtrusive about this cosmopolitanism -- and also about the way Gombrich encourages his audience to remember what has come previously in the story. One example comes in the thumbnail sketch of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. "We still have the diary he kept," writes Gombrich. "Almost everything he wrote in it was about self-control and tolerance, about enduring pain and hardship, and about the silent heroism of the thinker. They are thoughts that would have pleased the Buddha." (This passing remark strikes me as being worth two dozen After School Specials about diversity.)

Also characteristic is the book's humor, which always has a very light touch. Early on, Gombrich describes the unearthing of the first Neanderthal skull -- with its powerful teeth and the eyebrow ridges that served in place of a forehead. "The people who examined the skull," he writes, "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."

And following an abbreviated but suitably grisly account of the reign of Nero, Gombrich opens a chapter by saying, "If you weren't a Christian, a Jew or a close relative of the emperor, life in the Roman Empire could be peaceful and pleasant."

No, these aren't jokes. (As someone once put it, jokes are the lowest form of humor.) Perhaps the most impressive quality of Gombrich's prose is the complete absence of that anxious American wish to be entertaining at all costs. There are kinds of fascination that do not presume the attention span must decay if not nourished with constant thrills. "A Little History of the World" is deeply complimentary of a child's intelligence and capacity for seriousness.

For later editions of the book -- including this translation, which he partially completed before his death in 2001 -- Gombrich wrote a chapter about what happened between the close of World War I and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is titled "The Small Part of the History of the World Which I Have Lived Through Myself: Looking Back" -- and in parts, it reflects a struggle to determine just how much atrocity the young should be expected to face.

"And yet improvements in sending information have made the consciences of richer nations a little more attentive," he writes in the final lines. "Whenever an earthquake, a flood or a drought in a far-off place leaves many victims, thousands of people in wealthier countries put their money and their efforts into providing relief. And that, too, used not to happen. Which proves that we still have the right to go on hoping for a better future."