Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik van Loon

Well, this book was certainly an undertaking. When I picked up our library's copy and flipped through it (all 610 pages of the updated 1984 edition) my immediate thought was "This thing is a MONSTER! What were they thinking?". However, the Newbery committee wasn't entirely as insane as I'd thought at first glance.

The purpose of this book is to follow mankind from its initial evolution as a species through the modern era (well, what was modern at the time). And I have to say that the book does a fabulous job. It can by no means be taken as textbook truth, as van Loon uses a bit of humor, irony, and glossing over of major issues to make it more readable. But overall the tone is kept very conversational, and this goes an incredibly long way toward making what could be the most boring book ever written into something very approachable, once you get over your initial impressions. Additionally, the chapters are, for the most part, reasonably short, which keeps the reader from becoming bored or overwhelmed (especially because each chapter can be taken individually- the prior chapter's contents don't have to be memorized for the following section to make sense). This book was certainly a masterpiece of children's literature in its day. Because of available knowledge and culture at the time the book was written I've tried to not be too harsh about the details.

However, from a more modern viewpoint, this book is almost unforgiveably "Euro-centric", as if the remainder of the world (with the exception of America from the colonial period onward) contributed nothing of use to the common era. Asia (Russia excepted) is omitted almost entirely, with the exception of a brief chapter about Buddha and Confucius. Africa and South America are also mentioned only as lands to be conquered by the various European powers. Van Loon also presumes to discuss the First World War ("Great War") without ever introducing the Austro-Hungarian empire (well, they only owned most of the continent; they couldn't have been that important).

Speaking of his own work, van Loon states:
There was but one rule. "Did the country or the person in question produce a new idea or perform an original act without which the history of the entire human race would have been different?" It was not a question of personal taste. It was a matter of cool, almost mathematical judgment. No race ever played a more picturesque role in history than the Mongolians, and no race, from the point of view of achievement or intelligent progress, was of less value to the rest of mankind.

Well, then.

So my opinion must be twofold. For its day, definitely an achievement! For modern times, a bit out of touch with current science and social graces.

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