Sunday, November 9, 2008
A Little History of the World by EH Gombrich
The German version of this marvellous history for children was written in a mere six weeks in 1935 by an unknown 26-year-old art history graduate who later became known as the distinguished art historian EH Gombrich. He was still working on an English version when he died aged 92. Like all the best teachers, Gombrich simplifies but never patronises, adding a good measure of humour and charm. The book's civilising and humanising mission is never in doubt as history unfolds up to the "tolerance, reason and humanity" of the Enlightenment. Yet in a final chapter, recalling the rise of Hitler, an older and wiser Gombrich concedes that his optimism was misplaced and that in the last century humanity took "a painful step backwards", betraying the ideals of the Enlightenment. "Schoolchildren are often intolerant," he explains. "Unfortunately grown-ups don't behave any better." Gombrich's view of history as an adventure will appeal to all ages, but perhaps this book's best recommendation is that it was banned by the Nazis for being "too pacifist".