One Volume Histories of the World

  • 2. WORLD HISTORY: PERSPECTIVES ON THE PAST - Steven L.Jantzen, Larry S.Krieger, Kenneth Neill (1990)
  • 3. A SHORT HISTORY OF THE WORLD - Geoffrey Blainey (2000)
  • 4. THE HUMAN WEB - A BIRD'S-EYE VIEW OF WORLD HISTORY - J.R.McNeill and William H.McNeill (2003)
Author Comments: 

1. This is a huge book, but I've read it twice - that's how good it is. The hardcover edition is well illustrated (though not in color) and at the top of every page there is a one-line summary of that page. Roberts has recently published a history of the 20th century (titled TWENTIETH CENTURY) which is one of the books I am currently reading.

2. Yes, this is a text book (for, I think, high school students) but it really appeals to me because it is very clearly and simply written, as well as having hundreds of excellent color illustrations, charts, graphs, and other features.
I'll very probably read this a second time too.

3. I bought this one yesterday. Blainey is an Australian historian; his most famous book is THE TYRANNY OF DISTANCE, about the effect the difficulty of travel in and to Australia had on its history. His history of the world emphasises (according to the introduction) the effects of technology, from chipped-flint axes to computers. Later: I finished this months ago but forgot to amend this comment. It's a fascinatingly different history which often departs from the beaten track of world history. For example, it has a chapter on the history of the Polynesians, the peoples who populated the South Pacific. And this is the only world history I've read that really brought it home to me that humankind has already lived through an age in which the world was radically affected by huge changes in sea level. I fully recommend this one.

4. The McNeills characterize human history as a series of 'webs'. To quote from the Introduction: "A web, as we see it, is a set of connections that link people to one another." The elementary connections are communication, co-operation and competition. (So it isn't surprising that I often felt like I was reading an economic history of the world.) The main webs have been The First Worldwide Web (before the invention of agriculture), followed by the Metropolitan Webs (the first civilizations), which grew into The Old World Web (the ancient empires and the proto-nations that followed), then, starting with the advent of global maritime navigation, the Cosmopolitan Web, which after the hiccups of the two world wars has only got webbier (globalization). This is actually a book worth reading, despite the occasional lapse into silliness, such as the following:

An American bluesman, John Lee Hooker, recorded a song in 1962 that began with the words: "Boom, boom, boom, boom." This serves as a good summary of the second half of the twentieth century.

They are talking here about the post-WW2 economic boom.

You may be aware of this, but Roberts updated his history in the early 90s. I believe it is now published in American under the title, "The Penguin History of the World."

Great history, by the way. I'll have to seek out the third book on your list!

Have you peeked yet at Durant's recent(ly published) Heroes of History?

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

I do remember seeing Roberts' updated The [publisher] History of the World, and I believe I read his introduction which failed to persuade me to shell out for a book I substantially already had in my library. Did I make the wrong decision?

Have you mentioned the posthumous Durant to me before? I've just been to Amazon to look it up. Looks good; looks like the one-volume Durant to get.

I admit I have not read any previous editions of the Roberts (the revised version appeared in the early 90s; I was approaching my 20s and only beginning to take a real interest in history), so I really can not inform you of how much of the book is truly revised. The introduction certainly sounds like more was added than was changed.

Heroes of History is not really a true world history, as it focuses on intriguing individuals and stops around Shakespeare and Bacon. Will Durant died while writing it, and his notes reportedly indicate he was planning to add two chapters which would have at least examined Whitman and Lincoln; that is rather a shame, since this period is slightly later than where The Story of Civilization ended. Occasionally, a chapter seems a bit choppy or abruptly finished (like the India chapter), and I assume this may be due to his death as well. Much of the book is excerpted from Will and Ariel's Story of Civilization series, but I spied some new material as well, particularly passages that add a bit more personal opinion.

Still, for all that, it is a terrific book, and one would certainly learn quite a good deal of world history from reading it. His style is a joy, and his observations and retellings are apt and inspiring. I'm constantly amazed at how well he summarizes the philosophies of major thinkers, often in a page or less! Sure, he cannot cover everything in that space, but his compression and selections impress me, and his clarity is enviable. Reading his Story of Philosophy, I am not sure that the field has ever benefited from a better popularizer. I often doubt that history has either.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

I appreciate this further information. You'll be aware that there are several competing approaches to the telling of world history, one of which is the 'Great Man' (p.c. 'Great Person') approach. I admit I haven't read much in that genre, so the Durant book remains on my 'to get' list for that reason at least.

Somewhat sheepishly, I also admit I haven't read Durant on the history of philosophy. My formal studies in philosophy occurred in Australia, and there, although Durant is on the shelves, he isn't on the course reading lists, and one gets the impression he is seen as a dilettante in comparison with such as Fr Copelston. But, as an aspiring populariser of philosophy, I decidedly should read him.

Durant's reputation as a dilettante of philosophy, despite his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, extends to the universities of America. I believe this academic disdain has two roots.

First, Durant added little new to philosophy. He was a popularizer, and as such, spent most of his time exposing and explaining the philosophy of others as opposed to his own. Sure, he would criticize the various views as he wrote of them, but he was more of a teacher of than an original contributor to the field. (He did write one volume concerning his own philosophy, but I admit I have only skimmed it and have yet to give it a good reading. It is titled The Pleasures of Philosophy or The Mansions of Philosophy, depending on which edition you have.)

Second, and perhaps more essential to his negative reputation, Durant had little time or tolerance for epistemology and (to a much lesser degree) metaphysics. He felt the former removed philosophy from the practical (although it is interesting to ponder whether recent studies into the philosophy of the mind would have interested him, having a much more solid foot in science, which always intrigued him), and the latter was simply a slightly secularized theology, based on logically coherent systems that nonetheless relied more on faith (whether that faith included a god or not) than reason or science. He felt philosophy was most vital when engaged in logic, ethics, and politics, these areas having a more direct, obvious relation to the arena of actual life. He also seems to have enjoyed aesthetics, perhaps partly because of his own love of art.

Of course, metaphysics and, especially, epistemology are all the rage in most philosophy departments today, so they find it quite easy to smile down on Durant as out-dated or quaint.

While I do have some slight interest in metaphysics and (to a very small degree) epistemology, I tend to sympathize with Durant's emphasis on the practical fields of philosophy.

However, regardless of the above, his summaries of philosophers in the Story of Philosophy is still quite excellent, and even some of his critics reluctantly allow that he can sum up some philosophers (such as Spinoza) better than most. They can argue over the modern figures missing, and they have many points in that area (given his emphasis, it is a bit odd that Kierkegaard is so absent, though if I remember correctly, Kierkegaard's influence grew with Heidegger and Sartre, both perhaps a bit late for a book published in 1926), but they often have some difficulty contesting what is actually there.

I personally love the book.

Anyway, perhaps that explains matters a bit. Perhaps it merely reveals that I am an armchair philosopher at best...

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Attention: lbangs. You might find this book review interesting, as I did, for the light it throws on the origins of Wells' Outline of History.

Thanks for that link! Very interesting, which surprised me slightly, since my opinion of Salon is incredibly low indeed!

The distinction the article draws between plagiarism and copyright is one often missed, and the author did an excellent job dividing the two issues. The author was also very accurate in reflecting the criticisms about Wells' bias and his tendency to over-look major figures that were female or distasteful to him, such as Mr. Smith.

However, I still think the Outline is a milestone in popular history, and a terrific read.

The Salon article is a terrific read as well, and I thank you for it.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

What don't you like about Salon?

Oh, you really don't want to ask that, do you?

They too often dip into the realm of tabloids, and their stronger attachment to ideology than facts often strikes me as incredibly immature, even when my ideology lines up with theirs (which is most often the case). Their reviewers also seem to take the tack that the majority opinion on everything is always wrong (I often disagree with the majority, but I don't make a religion out of doing it for its own sake), and I really don't see very many redeeming qualities to the site other than a few good columnists and the occasional story I enjoy, like the one posted above. I guess to sum it up, they too often try to kick up dust with controversy instead of quality, and I really get bored with that quickly (I suppose it shocks some, but I don't easily shock). I know, I am terribly uncool for saying it, but I think Salon stinks.

Oh, I really don't think the Onion is very funny either, so you see, I'm terribly unhip when it comes to web sites!

MHO, naturally (well, except for Salon's tendency to often misrepresent facts, which is provable and has been proven many times before...)

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

PS - While I am terribly unhip about websites, Listology is quantifiably cool, and I'm really not sure how I was lucky enough to wander in here!

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

:-) Well I feel lucky to have you here, so I'm glad you wandered in!

As for Salon, enjoying its ideology as I do, I've probably had my blinders on. But I've never heard of any fact misrepresentation controvery in association Salon. I'll definitely have to read it with a more critical eye from now on. Thanks for the warning.

The Onion, on the other hand, is drop-dead funny when it hits. Unfortunately the hits aren't consistent enough for me to check the site with any regularity. My recommended dosage is the "Best of The Onion" book, whatever it's called.

I browsed throught the Onion compilations at the bookstore. I found a few of the stories funny, but I too often found myself admiring the writing rather than laughing with it. I certainly don't hate the site, but add the consistency problem with the fact that it often doesn't hit my funny bone, and I usually just avoid the site.

FWIW, all my friends love both Salon and Onion.

And most are starting to at least visit Listology, even if more need to start posting (yes, that's a nudge to any reading now...).

I love this site. It is one of the few I have my Opera (a browser I first learned of here) primed to open to.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

So glad you adopted Opera! But at the risk of appearing fickle, I have to tell you that I just started playing with a new browser last week: Phoenix. So far I love it. I have it set as my default browser and I think it's going to stay that way. It does pretty much everything I liked in Opera, including tabbed browsing, which I couldn't give up now that I've adjusted to it. It's open source so it's free and there are no ads, the bookmark manager is superior, it handles the Listology SPOILER tag properly, and the rendering speed and accuracy is either as good or better. On the down side it's only in version 0.4 so I've found a couple (very minor) quirks. And while the web-page rendering speed is great, sometimes the browser itself is a little slower to respond than Opera (sometimes when I bring the Phoenix window to the foreground it takes longer than I would like to appear - I think there's lots of virtual memory swapping in those cases, so my somewhat obsolete computer is probably a factor there).

On the other hand, I just noticed that Opera 7 Beta is available, so I have to check that out very very soon. So much for not wanting to appear fickle!


If I get bold, I'll check out Phoenix. I've only had Opera for about half a year and am just now learning many of its neat little features. Maybe in the next week. I do have Thanksgiving and Friday off...

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

:-) I just installed Opera 7 and it looks pretty nice. The first thing I noticed was that Listology SPOILERs now work right (although the left-nav "search", "recent updates", and "highlights" are now all scrunched together). It's prettier, and perhaps a little faster. The "add bookmark" feature has some small but thoughtful tweaks. I think I'm going to stick with Phoenix in the near term, but only because of bookmark inertia. I'd have a hard time objectively picking one over the other.

"As for Salon, enjoying its ideology as I do, I've probably had my blinders on."

I'll admit that I am horrible - I am probably tougher on stuff I agree with. Maybe an inborn critical killer instinct, and one I may never understand...

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs