My Goodreads review of The Penguin History of the World

The Penguin History of the World: Sixth EditionThe Penguin History of the World: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I read this book in increments over 13 months — I could have read it in 12, but I took this February off because I was getting wearied by the tome. If you read 3 1/4 pp per day, you will finish this book in a year. If you don’t–if you read it like a normal-sized book, I think the sheer mass of it will make you throw in the towel fairly soon. But 3 1/4 pp are manageable.

It’s hard not to give a magisterial volume like this 5 stars. I liked it because I like history. Here you have the whole sweep of human achievement, from the first stone tools and cave paintings to the Arab Spring. Our technological advancement and cultural changes are tracked in the broadest ways. The movement from small, isolated communities to broader nations and states to integrated polities and economies to the new globalised world is on display in this book.

Along the way, you meet the individuals, the stories that are the other aspect of history that keep people like me coming to read and reread the grand saga of human achievement, sorrow, and struggle. Ashurbanipal. Ramesses II. Plato. Alexander. Confucius. Siddartha ‘the Buddha’. Julius Caesar. Constantine. Mohammed. Charles ‘the Hammer’ Martel. Thomas Aquinas. Martin Luther. Winston Churchill. Mao Zedong. Mohondas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi. Loads and loads of South and East Asian persons I’d never met before but whose acquaintance I was glad to make.

I recommend this book, with its Egyptians and Saxons, its Indians and Mayans, its Romans and Chinese, its Mongols and Americans, its East Africans and Japanese.

My problem — and this is a separate, wider rant, so I’ll keep it short — is epitomised in the following fact: the entire ancient world, from Mesopotamia to the Middle Ages, including the Mediterranean, South Asian, and East Asian worlds, takes under 300 pages, and the final 300 pages cover life from the First World War onwards. I don’t expect equal coverage of the ancient and modern, but this is an extreme case of the usual disparity. (Rant over.)

There are a few other moments throughout that I either disagreed with or felt could have been spun a bit differently, but overall the book is worth the read.

View all my reviews

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