Art historian by training, E.H. Gombrich is not the obvious choice for writing a children’s book on the history of the world. He sort of stumbled onto it and wrote marvelously, entertaining children and adults for decades.
While a doctoral student at University of Vienna in 1935, a friend in publishing approached Gombrich to skim an English history book for children and consider translating it to German. Gombrich was not impressed, so much so that he told his friend he could write a better one. His friend welcomed the idea. At the time, Gombrich was familiar with explaining complex ideas in simple prose to some friends’ curious daughter. Tired of academic technicalities, Gombrich wrote a lively chapter on the age of European chivalry, which his publishing friend happily engorged. But to meet deadline Gombrich had six weeks to write an entire history of the world. He took that challenge: reading in the morning, consulting references in the afternoon, and writing at night, save Sundays, Gombrich finished 39 chapters in six weeks’ time.
The enormous and lasting commercial success of Gombrich’s children’s book was what eventually encouraged his more popular The Story of Art (1950), which is more up his area of expertise.
A Little History of the World is an entertaining introduction to world history. Gombrich is a lively writer, though at times a bit patronizing—it is a children’s book after all! It is, however, wildly skewed towards European or Western world history—I mean, E.H. Gombrich was an art historian in Vienna in 1935; how much could he had known about American, African, and Asian histories? I never took European history, so I found the book educational and enjoyable. European history can be summed like so: Europe was a hot mess for about two millennia. Seriously, when was it not burning?
Another thing I found enjoyable is how different histories are, say, between my area of growing expertise (Christian theology and philosophy) and Gombrich’s. What are of staggering importance in theology are glossed over or altogether omitted in world histories (save Martin Luther), such as the Four Ecumenical Councils (Nicaea, 325; Constantinople, 381; Ephesus, 431; Chalcedon, 451). Vice versa, theology would be all the better, I think, if it is learned coterminously with world events, such as rise and fall of the Holy Roman Empire, French Revolution (1789-99), and the Industrial Revolution (1800s). Thus showing that theology is not an incubated product: it is forged in the heat of everyday life and of things brewing for centuries.