The very young art historian E. H. Gombrich wrote A Little History of the World under extreme pressure, at breakneck speed (a chapter a day!), in Austria on the eve of World War II. Beloved abroad, but unavailable in English until 2005, it remains largely unknown to English-speakers. But it’s a magical, transporting book; newly available in paperback, it’s finally poised to reach the audience it so richly deserves.
Gombrich’s prose is the book’s greatest selling point: It’s clear, lyrical — even moral, in the best sense of the word. He’s especially strong on the major religions, all of which he treats with respect and curiosity. (Imagine that!) He sometimes elides the nastier aspects of history but also is capable of handling them drolly, as he does with the murderous reign of Nero: “If you weren’t a Christian, a Jew or a close relative of the emperor, life in the Roman Empire could be peaceful and pleasant.” Gombrich revised the book right up until the day he died. (In 2001, at the age of 92. It ends with a sobering chapter on Hitler and the Holocaust.) He also insisted on translating it into English himself (hence the long delay). But the book he left us is a children’s history that adults will want to sneak off with and read on the sly.
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