Friday, May 16, 2008

The Changing Face of History

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my father used to bring me all sorts of treasures of knowledge, from weekly magazines that built up into a multi-volume library (“Buy your binder today and get a free index!”) to gorgeous single-volume encyclopedias with paintings of planets and cavemen and dinosaurs striding through tropical jungles. Children have always liked true stories when interestingly presented, whether it’s books about dinosaurs or the Guinness Book of Records. That doesn’t change.

Opening History: The Definitive Visual Guide from the Dawn of Civilization to the Present Day (Dorling Kindersley Books) took me right back to my childhood, except that in those days there were far more paintings than photos. Unlike the books that excited me so much, this one is about human history; there’s no artist’s impression of the Big Bang, say, or of dinosaurs and mostly, cavemen are represented by photos of skulls, tools and fires, with the beautiful cave art of Lascaux to demonstrate communication.

The book is laid out in a combination of themes, including “Rulers and Hierarchies,” “Warriors, Travelers and Inventors” and “Population and Power.” There are timelines, both in the course of the book and at the end, which is a set of national histories, from North and Central America to Oceania.

History includes all the usual stuff: ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, mediaeval Europe, the Industrial Revolution, France and the World Wars. It also offers information about mediaeval Korea, Polynesian expansion, the ancient African states and 17th century Japan, among other things. It extends from the first creatures that might be considered human ancestors to the present problems of climate change and world health.

The world has changed since those books of my childhood were published; the contents of this book show that. History recognizes that the world is a much bigger place than Western publishers and teachers were admitting back then: an irony, in these days of globalization.

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