Book Review

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

23 Jan 2022


In recent months, I began to realize that my understanding of history was very muddled. I couldn’t tell you the dates, order, or any significant contributions of ancient civilizations. Nor could I recount important periods, people, general developments, etc. While I could point many fingers to many people, including myself (I acknowledge I played a large part in my ignorance), I find this first and foremost to be a failure of American education. Middle school and high school rarely ever focused on developing the foundation for history necessary to properly analyze contemporary historical events. Teachers focused on building analytical skills for passages and piecing together certain points of view - all important skills for a historian, but less meaningful without proper context. I have plenty of additional thoughts on the subject of education, but I will have to save them for another time. Needless to say, I was unsatisfied with my understanding of human history, and sought a book to relearn many of those essential concepts. I am delighted to announce that A Little History of the World was the perfect companion to get me back on track.

A Children’s Book, Not A Book for Children

Growing up, I was never especially enthralled by history classes. Most of them focused on precise, direct causes and effects that led to revolutions and changes in lifestyle. During the Renaissance for instance, it is easy to describe the impact that ancient Greece had on the architecture, art, and law in Italy. But (I would argue) it is more important to understand that the Renaissance occurred contrary to the lifestyle of the Middle Ages, following a long period of Feudalism. Somewhat ironically, Italy’s recapture of antiquity marked the beginning of the New Age. Understanding the background, the what came before is something that A Little History of the World introduces and expands on wonderfully.

When assigned to write this novel, as mentioned in the introduction, Gombrich was well aware of his audience and his constraints. He started the book by making a solemn promise (only broken a handful of times and for very explicit reasons) to provide a who, what, and when within his descriptions of historical events. As an addition, Gombrich approached A Little History of the World with little formality, and introduced complexity through ideas, generally by examining the effects that dozens of previous chapters in history had on the chapter he was narrating. It was written as a children’s book by design - however A Little History of the World is still valuable to readers of all ages looking to standardize history, and put it into context. If you were to read its reviews on the back of the cover, you would find a general consensus in this: book critics love this book, and for good reason. As of right now, it is without a doubt my favorite book.

Reading History

As I mentioned earlier, I was not dedicated to reinforce my understanding of historical events prior to reading A Little History of the World. Fortunately, and rather excitingly, Gombrich’s exploration in human historical events, recounting epic tales from the dawn of civilization to brilliant and ruthless emperors and leaders, to conquests on behalf of faith and knowledge, has kindled a curiosity within me. This book serves mostly as an atlas, a guide through the ages of civilization if you will. I fully intend to explore some of my favorite sections in more detail, including ancient Greek and Chinese civilization, the conquests of Alexander the Great, Confucian philosophy, the Renaissance, and most surprisingly of all, Napoleon’s reign in post—revolutionary France! If you, the reader, are in desperate need to rekindle your passion for history, or are perhaps looking to strengthen and contextualize human civilization from antiquity to WWII, A Little History of the World is the perfect book to start with.

- Emil Lars Kovačev



developed with aeroplane, a Jekyll framework