Thursday, 4 May 2000

J.M.Roberts: The Pelican History of the World (1976)

Edition: Penguin, 1980
Review number: 491

At the end of the twentieth century, there seems to be a vogue for celebrating the end of the second millennium AD with universal histories of the sort which had been rather out of fashion for some years. This particular work appeared at the time when they were unfashionable, the Pelican version being slightly updated from one printed by Hutchinson a few years earlier with many maps (reduced in number for this edition to keep costs down).

Judging by what I have seen of these millennial histories, The Pelican History of the World gains a great deal by not being sumptuously illustrated, by not aiming to be the only history book ever bought by its readers (to use, in many cases, this term loosely).

Another virtue making it a history which gives a more natural view of the past if not fitting it so well as a reference book, is that Roberts has chosen (deliberately, as he points out in the conclusion) to refrain from sorting events into specific time periods; each chapter deals with a particular aspect of the past, and carries the story through to what seems to be a sensible point in relation to the subject of that chapter rather than to any chronological division arbitrarily imposed across the board. (This is, of course, a particular feature of many of the history books marketed around the idea of the Millennium, most of which are divided by century.)

The value of books like this one to someone interested in history is to provide a wide context to areas of more detailed knowledge. I have, for example, a particular liking for medieval history, and I would not turn to this book for a history of the medieval West, but for information on other periods and areas (particularly China and India) Roberts provides interesting background. He certainly has the ability to select and summarise, even in the most recent periods covered. (Looking back from 2000 to the seventies, you might expect to have a different idea of what was significant, but the only obvious factor missing is any inkling of the economic problems which would eventually bring about the downfall of Soviet Communism - Roberts even manages to point to a growing interest in environmental concerns.)

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