In connection with a large project that I’m developing, my office has been pleasantly cluttered with history books. In particular, I’ve been attempting to understand the broad sweep, which is, we all know, a fool’s mission. Stumbling from Mesopotamia to The American Dream has been great fun, far better than I remembered from anything I did in school, and, because of the latest cluster of colorful history books, a fun trip every step of the way.
Appropriately entitled History: From the Dawn of Civilization to the Present Day, the 612-page tour of the human story is presented with the full DK Publishing treatment: lots of images, interesting sidebars, full layouts about expected and some unexpected topics (The American Dream, Leonardo DaVinci, Queen Victoria, Science vs. God, The Ming Dynasty, many more). You know the visual style from so many children’s books, Eyewitness Travel guidebooks, and more. Two examples below; in both cases, the links take you to the Amazon “see inside” sequence of selected pages from the book:
At first, I picked up this book in hopes of finding lots of illustrated timelines. Instead, I found myself browsing a kind of magazine about world history with articles about topics that I figured I should know more about. (In fact, there are timelines, but the type is small, the layout is idiosyncratic, and, candidly, there are better historical timeline books than this one, including the publisher’s own Smithsonian Timelines of History: The Ultimate Visual Guide to the Events that Shaped the World, described below).
This book excels in by telling well-chosen stories in simple, illustrated form, always offering enough depth of information to satisfy the curious. So here’s a two-page spread about Mesopotamia that begins by placing it in the area that now includes Iraq, southwest Iran, east Syria, and southeast Turkey. The name is derived from the Greek, “between two rivers,” which explains the site’s early evolution, noting that similar sites developed in the Indus Valley, and later, in China. Unlike the city-states, Mesopotamia was more like a nation that included several large cities whose names were, in 3,000 BCE, impressive: Uruk, Kish, Akkad, and Ur among them. The society was hierarchical: even in this era, inequality was the norm. There was music; there is a picture of a lyre from the era decorated with the bull’s head that was popular at the time. And there was a mathematical system based upon the number 60. You know the Mesopotamian system: it is the basis for our circle (360 degrees) and the number of minutes per hour (60).
Many pages ahead, there’s a four-page layout on City Life as it transformed normalcy in just 100 years, from 18oo to 1900. By 1819, the city of London was, well, here’s what the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote as early as 1819:
Hell is a city much like London…”
In 18oo, the largest city was Beijing (then, Peking) with not more than 1 million people. A century later, London was home to six times as many people, largely without the benefit of an extended period of growth and time to figure things out. Chicago’s population tripled in just fifty years. To move people around, the cities devised underground railroad systems, cable cars, and trolleys. In the 1850s, Napoleon III hired George Haussman to completely remodel the city, who “replaced entire medieval districts of narrow, cramped streets with wide boulevards…for which the city is now famous.”
Pages ahead, and it’s the Vietnam War, Raising the Iron Curtain, Superpower China, and Climate Change. A very comprehensive story, a terrific browse, a useful addition to the family or classroom library, as much fun as the old World Book Encyclopedia used to be, at least for those of us with a lot of time on our hands on rainy days after school.
The Smithsonian timetables book is more of a coffee table adventure, lavishly put together with artful two-page spreads about, for example, the Qing Dynasty, the Pacific Theater in WWII, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and, Edo Period, a personal favorite because it pictures a large picture of the Hannya mask (Hannya being a female Noh character turned into a demon by jealousy and anger). Mostly, though, this is a book with an extensive timeline that runs on the bottom fifth of most spreads for more than 450 pages. Explanations appear, in shorter story form, above the timeline. Right now, the book is open to 1780-1784. There’s an engraving, a color picture of a Montgolfier hot air balloon with seven passengers aboard, making their way across Lyons. In 1781, William Herschel, an astronomer, discovered Uranus (on March 13, in case you’re curious). On the following spread, Britain is doing what it can to eliminate the slave trade, including (and I didn’t know this) establishing Sierra Leone as a place for freed slaves (similar to our Liberia, years later). Skipping past the two page spread about steam power, we’re now in 1789, when, within months of one another, we find George Washington becoming the first U.S. President (February 4) and Fletcher Christian leading the mutiny on the HMS Bounty (April 28). The Bastille was stormed that summer (July 14, which you probably knew), and the U.S. Congress proposed the Bill of Rights (September 28).
This book is filled with interesting tidbits: Marie Antoinette was 14 years old when she married Louis XVI; tiny Portugal’s empire was 4.6 million square miles; 2,000 bathers could simultaneously splash around in the Roman Baths of Caracalla; and, for what it’s worth, the number of eunuchs employed by the Ming Dynasty exceeded 100,000. Or, if you prefer, the number of diamonds in King George’s crown: 6,000.
The abiding favorite tidbit is a quote from the President of the United States, then Rutherford B. Hayes, who watched Alexander Graham Bell demonstrate the telephone in 1876 and then said,
That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?”