Around the Worlds

There's a neat subgenre of history that wants to tell the entire story of human civilization. A lot of the older ones are very much focused on Europe, with a chapter or two devoted to those vague people somewhere else who were doing whatever. For some reason, I find this combination of bias and ambition strangely charming, and I've killed a lot of time reading histories of worlds.

In the 1930s, German doctoral student E.H. Gombrich was asked to write a story of civilization that young people could understand. Inspired by the challenge and a demanding publisher, he pumped out A Little History of the World in less than two months. Despite being banned by the Nazis, the book garnered a worldwide following up to and beyond the author's death in 2001. Its voice is like that of a father gently explaining horrible, complicated and wonderful things to a precocious child before bed. It's good reading for adults and young people alike.

A lot of science fiction authors want to know everything, and once they get far enough along, they want to tell everyone else what they think they know. Isaac Asimov's Chronology of the World and H.G. Wells' The Outline of History are two good examples of unstoppable know-it-alls sharing their knowledge with anyone who will listen.

But there's no comparing with renowned scholar and commentator Mel Brooks, whose remarkable films have included deep insights into the American West, classic literature, speculative science and even the economics of the theaterHistory of the World, Part 1 is his magnum opus, an account of mankind up to the French Revolution and required viewing for any serious appreciator of history.

Get through all these, and not only will you catch up on your history, you'll also learn something about how we judge it, explain it and understand it.

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