In the early 1990s, I had the privilege of driving Dr. James Montgomery Boice, then pastor of Philadalphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church, from Bradenton, Florida, after a speaking engagement at our church, to the train station in Tampa, where he was to catch a train (he was weary of flying) back to Philadelphia.
On that ride, Dr. Boice revealed to me that he was then beginning to read again Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume history The Story of Civilization. I was impressed by his desire to be well rounded and in his curiosity in all things.
So when I heard of Susan Wise Bauer’s similar but more compact four-volume history, I decided to jump in. (I have finished The History of the Ancient World and am in the middle of The History of the Medieval World.)
I’m glad that I have done so, and from the vantage point of 1400 pages in, I feel that I’m in a position of making an observation or two.
First, I’m impressed. Knowing something of how hard it is to write, and how difficult it can be to sustain one’s productive interest in a project of this magnitude over a prolonged period of time, I cannot imagine how tough it is for her to keep at this project for so long. Add to this the fact that she is not an historian, but a professor of English, I am more amazed at her ability to grasp and wrestle to the ground such massive amounts of information.
Secondly, she tells this story with as much passion and interest and personality as she can muster. The narrative is punctuated with wry observations about the myriad characters involved. She is able, for example, to see through and expose with a wink a king’s supposed ‘holy’ purpose when it is clearly a raw grab for power.
Thirdly, her purpose is incredibly noble. She is not trying to write a typical Euro-centric ‘world’ history, but a true history of the whole world, giving the stories of China and India and Japan and the Islamic states, and one imagines in the future, those of Africa and South and North America, equal coverage.
The problem I find is that the task is just so monumental that I’m sure that it is impossible to do.
Compressing such massive amounts of information into a mere four volumes of 900-1000 pages each results in a narrative that moves from one battle to another, one political play for power to another military victory, from one region to another. Sprinkled within are occasional glimpses of life, and now and again the pace slows to give the back story to contemporary events (such as the intriguing explication of the different claims of Sunni and Shia Muslims). But overall, something of the human in the story is lost.
I’m thinking that part of the problem is my own. My knowledge of, say, the ninth century, is so insipid that the parade of names and places leaves me as dazed as a first reading of the prophecy of Isaiah must to the person new to the Bible.
But I can’t help but think that the issue is bigger than that. That it is impossible when one moves further and further away and condenses an era into fewer and fewer pages to write much more than about tectonic shifts in power. Lost is the detail that makes the living of life human.
I have calculated that if one were to shrink the earth to the size of a bowling ball, that the resulting sphere would be, if possible, smoother than a bowling ball. That is, all the detail and contrast which make the earth wonderful to observe would be gone. All that would be left to describe would be surface detail. For the most part, that is how I feel in reading these books. They are well done. But the scope is too large.
Somewhere, a family this morning is sitting down to a breakfast of waffles and sausage, perhaps celebrating the return of a son or daughter from military service or mourning the loss of a family patriarch. Elsewhere, a young man is plotting the means of telling his girl of his undying love and desire to marry her. And still elsewhere, a child is going to sleep hungry, struggling with his family to find the food to eat in an impoverished land.
All over this drama goes on and has gone on, but none of it is visible to the writer of a general history. And the further we are removed from these stories, the more sterile a history MUST become. When one pulls back further and further, one is left with little but battles and wars and usurpations and power struggles. And no matter how well that history is written – and this one is written well – the end result can be tedious.
Perhaps I’m not James Montgomery Boice after all.
Bauer is an English professor, not a history professor. In her attempt to cover an extensive time period, she does not begin to address the causes and effects of historical events and how one affected the other. There is much she glosses over. Bauer’s books would not be the history textbook I would choose to educate my children.
The limitations of history writing, as you have described them, are one reason why reading fiction from other time periods is so valuable. In some ways, you can learn more about 19th century England by reading Austen and Dickens than you can by reading a history of England.
That Bauer is an English professor should be seen as no strike against her, really. Neither Barbara Tuchman nor David McCullough are historians by trade, but because they are writers, they write about history in a captivating way. I’m persuaded that even they would falter in the telling of a history of this scope. That she glosses over much is precisely my point. But it is not her fault; it is the nature of the beast. She MUST because the scope is so vast. I’m positively impressed that she does it as well as she does given the limitations inherent in the project, limitations obviously not imposed upon the writer of fiction whose focus, as Jeff points out, is narrowed upon a particular time and place.
I am enormously grateful for Bauer’s work. As someone who had a horrendous history education, she has made the subject accessible to me in a way I never thought possible. If I waited for what seemed to me a more complete history of the world to be published, I don’t think I’d have ever fallen in love with the subject. I’ve read the first two volumes of her monumental task. They whetted my appetite so that I am better able to teach my children history. Furthermore, the excitement Dr. Bauer generated in me for history is spilling over onto my children. Do I use these as my ultimate source for teaching history? No. But this undertaking has provided me with a great foundation.
Gail, I’d love to hear what it is you WOULD use to teach your children history.
Jeff, great point about the value of reading fiction.