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Planet Earth was formed some 4.54 billion years ago and things got a little interesting when water first appeared allowing life to spring up. Some stuff then happened beginning with evolving single-celled organisms turning into dinosaurs over a fairly long period of time followed by a rather catastrophic asteroid crash landing triggering nasty climate change wiping out much life until...finally...the origins of man began some 500,000 years ago. It was from this point in prehistory all the way up to the present that in the early 1970s that a chap called Geoffrey Barraclough decided all major events should be documented with maps, pictures and text and all neatly bound in a book entitled firstly "The Times Atlas of World History" before being renamed as today's version "The Times Complete History of the World".
The original idea was to allow for a complete history of the world (I guess being defined by the origin of human life) and also to not focus too greatly on just modern history or making it Eurocentric but to go all around the globe in chronological order throughout the book, effectively treating it as a historical timeline allowing the evolution of the world to take shape. Obviously, time just keeps ticking on and new history is constantly being created, so the entire concept of this book requires revisions and new editions and since its inception the editorial duties have switched to Norman Stone upon Barraclough's death for the third edition, then Geoffrey Parker for the fourth edition and since then up to this seventh edition, Richard Overy. This project requires a feat of major planning, organisation and research to cover an inconceivably large period of time compressed in a ridiculously small space and the amount of work gone in is clearly evident with a polished, professional looking reference book, but for me the big questions are has this book achieved the goals set out and just how useful is it really?
The first noticeable thing about this book is its sheer size and weight. You would need a large and sturdy bookshelf to fit it on with dimensions of H38 x W27.8 x D4.2 cm and a weight of 6½ lbs. which does allow it to successfully multitask as a weapon in the event of a burglary or even a door stop. It is hard to believe that the entire history of the world can be crammed into something that, whilst actually being an acceptably large book all things considered, is still relatively small when you think of how much stuff has happened, but hey, they've had a good crack at it. The second noticeable thing is how professional the book actually looks. Thick pages mean it will stand the test of time, and the print quality for the text, maps, pictures and photographs is of a very high standard, albeit with very small text size. Each page is a bit of an information overload with the central focus being on the main text areas surrounded by pictures/maps/photographs all having captions with extra titbits of information dotted about which is a formatting that is aesthetically appealing. The writing, as you'd probably expect for a reference book, has a very dry, academic style to it that is both authoritative and detached so unless you are actually interested in the topic (but if you are taking the time to read it, one would assume you would be) it may struggle to hold your attention.
Not being the kind of book you'll be reading cover to cover, thankfully it is incredibly well indexed to allow you to locate whatever you are after (assuming it is present) with relative ease. At the beginning is the contents page split up into seven sections spanning 323 pages out of the 416 for the entire book:
1. Human Origins and Early Cultures 2. The First Civilizations 3. The Classical Civilizations of Eurasia 4. The World of Divided Religions 5. The World of the Emerging West 6. The Age of European Dominance 7. The Age of Global Civilization
At the back of the book is a 1 page bibliography followed by a 36 page glossary covering famous people and events and then a 27 page index all in really quite tiny print that may well require some magnification for those with poor eyesight. So if you're looking for a vague concept, such as South American civilizations or something very specific such as King Henry VIII then you have several easy ways to locate the information. So, back to my earlier questions, has this book achieved its goals to cover the complete history of the world in a non-biased and useful way? I decided the best way to test this theory was to randomly pick some historical events of worth to see if and how they appeared in this compilation. I'd just finished reading a book about the Moche, an old South American civilization with some rather disturbing cultural legacies so I thought I'd see if they popped up anywhere. Going via the index route they were indeed there...wahoo...but the amount of information about them consisted of two sentences and a dot on a map so the cup didn't runneth over too much with knowledge. Only you can judge how useful you'd find that, but for me, not so much.
I'd also seen a film involving the Jewish persecution in WWII so I thought I'd see what was available about that rather memorable historical event. It was surprisingly hard to track down - I eventually found it under the title "The Murder of European Jews" in the opening contents which turned out to be two paragraphs simply outlining the events leading up to 3 million Jews being murdered in gas chambers and the neighbouring countries that were involved one way or another. It certainly couldn't be accused of being partial in anyway but barely scratched the surface of the atrocity. Next I thought everyone loves the tyrannical reign of Henry VIII and his shenanigans with his wives so let's see what was lurking, but all I could find was an entry for him in the glossary with a few boring facts that never even hinted at the flair of his story. So, what I could conclude from my "research" is you'll probably find what you're looking for within this book, but, and I suppose this is to be expected since this is in fact a reference book, you will only learn the bare minimum about it, so at best this book will be the starting point on a topic, but you will have to flesh out the full story by using other resources.
From a different perspective of going in blind and simply finding out what there is to learn about the history of the world, the structure of this book works quite well. At the beginning, before section one, there are 13 pages covering the chronology of world history in a timeline format split by continent that highlights important events starting from circa 750 BC when Homer's Iliad and Hesiod's poetry were first written down all the way up to the first artificial sperm cells being created in 2007. Everything in between these events, as well as before with the human origins is covered in the same rough order throughout the sections floating through history with the likes of skulls from early humans, hunting and farming, early civilizations and empires like Ancient Egypt, religion and war, industrial revolutions and up to modern day politics, economics and technological advancements and so you really do get a feel for how the world has changed over time just by flicking through at things that leap out of the page which does give some insight.
So, at a retail price of £75 (ouch - but it looks like you can get it for as little as £29.99 by shopping around), this is an expensive book that undoubtedly reflects the amount of work gone into researching, organising and constructing what is a thoroughly comprehensive and professional looking piece of work, and there is no denying the overwhelming amount of information to be had at your fingertips. However, it is a heavy and unwieldy book, certainly not something you'd take on the train with you, and in order to cram as much in as possible it is written with a small text size which does require you to peer intensely at the page which could cause some eyestrain and the level of depth has been sacrificed for the sheer number of topics addressed only on a superficial level, so this is not a definitive resource by any stretch of the imagination. I feel, despite noble goals, it was always too much to ask to compile a compendium to cover something as vast as 500,000 years of history in a way that could ever be truly helpful. I don't see the point of whipping this book off the shelf to spend minutes trying to find something out before having to hop on to the Internet to find out the in-depth details. Perhaps I'm missing the point, but I don't understand the need for such an undertaking and most certainly not at full price.
N.B. Version 8 is also out now which is more expensive but it more up-to-date.
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