The History Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained)Hot
As part of DK's award-winning Big Ideas Simply Explained series, The History Book uses infographics and images to explain key ideas and themes. Biographies of key leaders, thinkers, and warriors, from Julius Caesar to Barack Obama, offer insight into their lives and further historical insight into these world-changing episodes.
The History Book makes the past 4,000 years of history accessible and provides enlightenment on the forces that shaped the world as we know it today, for students and history buffs alike.
Disclaimer: This reviewer’s grasp on history is fairly weak. After reading The Literature Book from this same topic-encompassing series and finding it accurate (albeit selective), I requested this one in hopes of filling in the many gaps in my comprehension of World History.
What I Liked:
The breakup of dense text is handled superbly. The format is engaging and the visual aids are frequent—alternating between stylized duo-chromatic images, flow charts, extracted quotes, and full color pictures of actual artwork and existing location photography.
Note: This History Book exclusively uses the religio-culturally neutral terms BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era.)
The first 30 pages were something of an overview dedicated to pre-recorded history. The compilers of this book do at least own up to the fact that history so far removed has more uncertain variables, and has been often subject to overhaul as new information is uncovered and the scientific community is forced to revise their understanding.
"The narrative of the distant human past is under constant revision as new discoveries and research...its findings frequently disputed…create radical shifts in perspective."
What Didn’t Work For Me:
-Despite the overall visual appeal, there were no maps included to show areas mentioned or the geographical boundaries of whatever empire was being discussed. I also regret that there weren’t any cues offered for proper name pronunciations. Stylistic oversights, perhaps… and ultimately the least of my lingering concerns.
-Just as with The Literature Book, there aren't any sources or alternate research opinions cited anywhere. It was more of an annoyance when I had to verify the occasional unfamiliar factoid that felt subjective or suspect when the topic was literature. (Also aggrieving that the sci-fi and fantasy genres were barely worth a passing mention, but I’m trying not to be bitter.) With this history book, it became a work of tedium that steadily unraveled my trust in the compiler’s intentions.
Contributors ARE listed (seven in all), and their qualifications given brief biography on the back flap and at the front immediately following the copyright page. A Dr. Fiona Coward is listed as “Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Anthropology Research at Bournemouth University, UK.” And the other six contributors are listed as writers—only two of which they refer to as historians, and none of which are presented alongside their education credentials.
-Unfortunately, my concern over this lack of sources and vetted credentials was exacerbated by the frequent usage of emotionally charged adjectives. It’s one thing to summarize a historical figure or event in an accessible manner. It’s quite another to essentially tell readers how they should FEEL about said figure and/or event. (See example of this in my next point.) These early observations led to a lot of fact-verifying on my part, and the suspicion that readers should take everything with a grain of coarse sea salt.
-On page 70, I happened upon something that startled me. A blatant inaccuracy I only caught because I had enough familiarity with this particular little piece of history and with the Jewish faith. I am copying the problematic section word for word:
JUDAH DEFIES THE ASSYRIANS
(c. 700 BCE)
In the 9th century BCE, the Hebrew state of Judah (west of the Dead Sea) was part of the large Assyrian empire. In the 8th century, the Judaean ruler Hezekiah refused to pay tribute to the king of the Assyrians. The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, laid siege to Jerusalem (an event described in the Bible), but the Judaeans resisted their mighty enemies, who failed to take the city. Although this was a relatively small setback for Assyria, it was a triumph for the Judaeans, who attributed their victory to Yahweh. This was a major factor in the Hebrew peoples’ adoption of monotheistic religion soon after.
I consulted with an adjunct professor friend of mine (who both reads and translates Hebrew) just to make sure I wasn’t mistaken or overreacting. She was also alarmed, and felt this section indicative of vast oversimplification and potentially biased presentation. She also found more amiss with it than I had initially:
*Judah did not become a vassal of Assyria until 730ish (around when Israel fell), not in the 9th cent (800-899), as the article says.
*More importantly, Judah/Israel had been monotheistic for a long time before Hezekiah. Even most liberal scholars will say they became fully monotheistic around the time of King David (~1000 BCE).
Reputable sources should always present other viewpoints, but unfortunately, The History Book’s presentation gives the idea that theirs is the only view. And at this point, I lost a tremendous amount of faith in the accuracy of anything I’d already ingested. With my limited background, there was little or no chance of me picking up on similar discrepancies in sections covering the Roman Empire, or the Chinese Dynasties… And doing a line-by-line fact check from there on out didn’t feel like an efficient use of my time. Worse still, I was afraid of how much I might have to later unlearn.
So I decided to cease intent study and instead browse through the rest for events I’d like to later look up from more neutral material containing cited sources. In doing so, I inadvertently made one other noteworthy observation…
-On page 40 begins a 2-page overview on the origins of Buddhism (500 BCE) ending with a bio on its founder, Siddartha Guatama. It is the first instance in this book in which a still-existing religion is presented. The next time a comparable segment occurs isn’t until page 78 when we are given a 4-page dedication to Muhammad and the rise of Islam (610 CE.) Why these two are granted such attention and other major religions are glossed over or excluded is perplexing. Abraham receives no bio and Judaism seems overlooked, Christianity is mentioned in relation to its persecution and then rise amid the Roman Empire, but Jesus has no bio. (Neither Abraham nor Jesus appear at all in this book’s index.) Confucius’ life more or less overlapped that of Buddha’s, yet he receives only a 2-sentence footnote on page 57. I won’t even speculate on the reasoning behind this imbalance.
As a tool for explaining historical revisionism and academic bias to young adults, this book holds interesting potential. But as an actual history book, I’m afraid I can’t recommend it in good conscience.