The World in 350 Words
Certain books offer us a vision of life so grand that they demand the largest possible canvas. Tolstoy took 1,444 pages to articulate his philosophy of history in War and Peace ; Proust needed seven volumes to map and recapture memory. David Fromkin has managed to be more concise. A professor at Boston University but a resident of New York City, Mr. Fromkin has written the history of the world in 222 pages. His new book, The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilizations to the Eve of the 21st Century (Alfred A. Knopf) tells the whole damn story, from apes swinging from branches to the last Russian troops leaving Germany. But if Mr. Fromkin can do it in 222 pages, why can’t we do it in 20 pages? In two pages? In 20 lines ? Shouldn’t a journalist be able to write a world history in 350 words? Let’s start, as Mr. Fromkin does, with primates …
They had four legs and ate fruit. Soon-7 million years ago-chimpanzees split from humans. Some monkeys, that is, started walking on two feet. Between 2.5 million and 1.5 million years ago, the brains of our ancestors suddenly jumped enormously in size. First came Homo erectus and then Neanderthals and then Homo sapiens . The Ice Ages were frigid. We started domesticating dogs and goats and sheep and pigs. Donkeys and camels, too.
In Sumeria, Sharru-Kin created the world’s first empire. Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huangdi traveled in search of a magic potion, and then the Greeks invented the alphabet. Civilizations died but others were born. There was a great flood, then God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham arrived, then Isaac, then David, then Solomon, later Laotzu and Zoroaster, Siddhartha Gautama and Confucius, Socrates and Herodotus, Darius the Great and Alexander the Great. Suddenly it’s A.D. and Jesus is being crucified.
The Roman Empire declined, then fell. It was the barbarians. It was the Huns and the Vandals and Franks and the Goths-not to mention the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths. And the Magyars, Vikings, Normans and Mongols! On Christmas Day, 800 A.D., the Pope crowned Charlemagne ruler of the Franks. Christianity conquered Europe. Then the Black Death conquered Europe. Then gunpowder conquered Europe, then humanism, then mercantilism, then imperialism. First Columbus went to the New World, then da Gama, then Cortés, then Pizarro, Hudson and Marquette. They brought disease to America and brought tobacco back to Europe.
Now things started to get complicated. Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Independence , Marx wrote Das Kapital , Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary , and Edison invented the light bulb. World War I broke out, then it ended and World War II broke out. In fact, first Germany invaded Poland, then World War II broke out. After that, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Six-Day War, the Grenada War, the Falkland Islands War and, on CNN, the Gulf War.
Then, on Aug. 31, 1994, the last Russian troops left Germany. Such is the history of the world-in 350 words.
– Aaron Matz
The College Girls
On Thursday nights, Columbia students go to Indigo on West 83rd Street to take advantage of the bar’s “all-you-can-drink-for-$10” deal.
At 11 P.M. on Feb. 25, it was too crowded to move and too loud to talk. That way, everyone could be sure they were having a good time. The Columbia girls were there. I won’t use their names, because they were too drunk to care about what they said or who they said it to.
One young woman, who had a double major, was celebrating her 21st birthday with friends from her sorority.
“I’m feeling very happy,” she said.
“What happened today at school?”
“Today is Thursday? I went to my art and humanities class and learned about Frank Lloyd Wright. I learned about the Kaufman house.”
Her boyfriend came over and handed her a drink.
“This is my boyfriend of three years,” she said. “He’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met. He’s made an amazing effort to make me feel amazing, to make me feel intelligent and ambitious-”
“This is all bullshit,” the boyfriend said.
She sipped her Jack and Coke. “This is my seventh drink,” she said.
Her friend, a history major, sat on the blue couch built into the wall. “I know a lot about basically 20th-century American history?” said the history major, who spoke in up-talk. “I’m very interested in the 20’s, the 50’s and the 60’s? The 20’s was, like, an incredibly interesting era for women? Because it was after they got to vote? And they entered the public sphere in droves and were finally allowed to have their own identity aside from being wives and mothers, so it’s incredibly fascinating?”
She was also 21 years old. I asked her how she felt about President Clinton.
“I worship him,” she said. “Because he believes in everything I believe in. Because every man has a penis, every man needs to use it, and that doesn’t make him a bad President.”
She said she got a 1420 on her SAT’s (“before they readjusted it-that would be a 1520 now!”) and got into Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, Duke, Cornell-but not Yale. She lit a Marlboro Light.
“We all sleep with each other,” she said. “My best friend’s ex-boyfriend is the person I’m sleeping with right now. He’s in a fraternity and I’m sleeping with him right now and he’s my best friend’s ex-boyfriend. It doesn’t matter at Columbia.”
She said it was safe. “We don’t have unprotected random sex because we’re smart and we go to an Ivy League school-we know about condoms. Everyone at Columbia is psychotic about condoms. Every dorm has condoms on every floor and I don’t have one friend who’s having sex without condoms.”
A friend in a tank top came over. Another history major. Blonde and beautiful. “I’m taking this Women in Film class,” she said. “We watch films and you interpret them through different analytical theories, and basically what you do is find out how women are perceived throughout these films. Basically, the underlying theory is, like, women are subjugated, yadda yadda yadda, all that kind of shit. I’m not a psycho lesbian; I don’t believe in any of that stuff.”
She had a sex story for me: “I am dating someone who’s 10 years older than I am. We were driving back from Vermont, it was a really, really long drive, we got stuck in traffic, and we were joking around, and he was like, ‘This is so boring,’ and he goes, ‘Let’s get naked!’ And I was like, ‘All right, cool!’ So I totally get naked in the car and then we started having this, like, not sex, like a blowjob, whatever, and in the middle of the blowjob, he hit a tollbooth! The toll collector, I mean, it was very obvious. I had no clothes on! So he just passed the toll collector and he was like, ‘Hope you all are having a good time,’ and then I tried to grab my coat and put it on me, but it didn’t work out.”
Next came a skinny, curvy sorority girl in a black flowery T-shirt and black jeans. She looked and sounded like Debra Winger in Urban Cowboy . She sat down with a Bud Light bottle.
“I hate school,” she rasped. She looked around. “It’s a drunkfest around here.” Then she said, “Columbia is the hardest thing I ever went through, in my entire life.”
“She’s really smart, she’s from a small town,” piped in the history major.
“She’s saying this because I feel like I’m not smart enough to be at Columbia and if you want a perspective from someone who’s not a New York child, who hasn’t grown up in this really wealthy family, who went to a public school, one of the worst public schools in the nation-I’m completely intimidated by this school. Completely.”
Madonna’s “Holiday” was playing.
“I was prescribed with medicine because my doctor felt like I wasn’t coping well with, like, Columbia life, which is so strenuous, and I’m just going through a lot of stuff right now. It was actually my gynecologist who put me on an antidepressant and now my, like, medical doctor is changing my medicine. It hasn’t helped me at all, actually. The more that I think about the things that I should be doing, the more I want to lay in bed. And the more that I lay in bed the more that I get stressed out that I’m not doing the things that I’m supposed to be doing. It’s, like, this whole big fiasco.”
It was 1:30 in the morning. I bought her a beer and told her the problem with antidepressants is you lose those natural good feelings.
“I haven’t been having many good feelings at all these days,” she said.