I love history. I was very very lucky to have two excellent history teachers at school, Miss Forth and Mr Howell, and a mother passionately obsessed with the past, and find learning new facts about our foremothers endlessly fascinating.
I had never heard of this book until the World Book Night 2013 title came out last Autumn, but having read the blurb of the copy we bought for work I instantly put it on by TBR list and after reading the first chapter whilst cataloguing it bumped it right up the pile.
This book, originally published in 1935 by Austrian art historian Gombrich, who is apparently better known for his standard text The Story of Art, was written in six weeks and meant for children. It was only translated into English, despite being a massive bestseller across Europe, in 2005. It covers history from the dawn of mankind until just after the First World War
As you can imagine from the time it was written in, this is very very Euro-Centric, and central-euro-centric at that. The last 800 years or so are based almost totally in France, Germany, Italy and Austria and the various parts of those empires and yes I could have done with seeing Australia or South America mentioned. And there were no vikings, which made me sad.
However, this doesn’t take away from how utterly charming and wonderful a book this is. Imagine you have the coolest granddad in the world ever, cooler even than Columbo in The Princess Bride, and he’s telling you this story, whilst slipping you toffee. The first half, Egypt, Babylon, Greece and Rome (which he clearly hates) with a tinsy bit of Asia thrown in, is hilariously jolly and romantic. My favourite sample quote, describing the aftermath of the thwarted Persian attempt to invade Greece, “In his fury, Xerxes had the waves lashed with chains. But I doubt if the sea took any notice.”
It’s twee, and it’s simple, but I learnt a lot. English History can be fairly Aren’t Brits Awesome, and it isn’t going to get any better under Gove, this book talked about things like the Thirty Years War in Germany, which I had never heard of but which decimated a population.
If you are a history buff but enjoy lovely things, or if you want a nice starting point for Endless Googling, then treat yourself to this, or try finding a World Book Night Giver to nick one off on the 23rd. It is marvellous.