The Penguin History of the World J.M Roberts

the-penguin-history-of-the-world

As you float down through the centuries very deep thoughts about humanity appear and then fade away, great images and civilizations pass briefly like falling leaves.

Individuals are part of something bigger, sometimes people loom larger than others, Jesus, Siddhartha, Confucius, Plato, Mohammad, Newton, Marx, Darwin, and Freud.

There is something surreal about reading about history like this, for me it brings comfort, joy, it reminds me of warm cups of and tea leather armchairs on rainy days.

The smell of the page and the enjoyment of a mental journey, that you alone are about to undertake…this is no small task this is ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY.

I have two other world histories recently completed that help me with this journey – IDEAS: A history from fire to Freud by Peter Watson, The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas 

I excitedly dived in to this project, savouring every page expecting images of Persians, Romans and sparkling clad soldiers headed into battle.

However as I began a disturbing set of thoughts started to take hold and have been slowly clouding my vision of history. The first cloud occurs in pre-history, there seems to be literally hundreds and thousands of years of pre-history missing, that is nothing really occurred not even a simple scratch on a cave wall.

Just think about that for a while, we live in an age where humanity has a serious case of attention deficit disorder, it simply can’t go anywhere without covering every blank space available with tags, posters and advertising, here are our very distant ancestors who shared identical grey matter and facilities living in a giant and what must of seemed like a very devoid world, with no graphic art or media for hundreds and thousands of years.

No matter how much thought I put into this subject I can’t fathom it, it is beyond my imagination.

As you move forward on your magical mystery tour of history the carnival throws up all sorts of questions, there are plenty of gaps and guesses at simple things that we ought to really know a great deal more about. The gaps and guesses pile up even right into recorded history by the time you reach the classical age the history reader is so burdened by the massive and apparent holes in our knowledge that you find yourself unable to stop thinking ‘Maybe that is in another book you haven’t read, just forget about it and move on’.

Take the curious case of the same technology (Agriculture, Iron smelting, Pottery, Writing)  arising independently sometimes simultaneously in supposedly totally isolated civilizations, or why some civilizations took eons to make any move forward while others seem to make huge strides in a relatively minuscule period of time, or major historical events within written history that have gone ‘missing’, or in some cases altered to suit later rulers or religions. Some of the writings and objects we have found that supply us with huge amounts of information like cuneiform tablets seem to come to us totally by accident a mere fluke of history that we have uncovered and deciphered them.

In Penguin History of the world, a small passage is spent wondering about how the peasants of ancient China actually spent their daily lives and slowly and finally it hit me, the reality of history

Why am I different to a peasant that lived 3000 years ago? or a normal Egyptian worker, A Greek farmhand or slave?

I had the same feeling when I visited the Louvre, it was not only the great number of beautiful artworks it was the scale of humanity that had to transpire to create them, the sweat the toil and oil and brushes, stone and marble, but more interestingly every now and then you passed a glimpse of an ordinary person who lived hundreds of years ago just like you living their lives that are now gone and that portrait is all we have.

Real history has this effect, it reminds you of the eons and eons of families and workers that have gone leaving nothing behind not a scratch. In history books whole civilizations are treated as people, that is millions of people and their lives come and go they wax and wane in a few passages, it just seems obscene when you consider the scale of it all.

In my own life I have been witness of six prime ministers of Australia, five presidents of the United States, a Bosnian war, two Gulf wars and an incursion in Afghanistan, a terrorist attack on New York and a global financial crisis and yet in all that time there has been only one monarch – Queen Elizabeth, she is on all our coins here in Australia and in the future people will look back at these coins and see her face, this is history.

It is therefore difficult to get any kind of scale here in Australia, a country relatively devoid of civilizations great achievements (Besides some remarkable early cave art by aboriginal people) In this relatively new country the past is the stuff of a short ABC documentary and a few scuffed sandstone blocks in Sydney, for us here it almost entirely abstract. We don’t live with the past here, history does not infiltrate our daily lives or our ideas it’s largely all a subconscious handing down of the western tradition and many people are only dimly aware of what that means.

The Penguin history is a monumental, yet as a history book it can only ever brush a little of the dust away from the vast and complex dialog of human history.

 

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