Books

12.25.13

Why We Should Read World History

When we pick up history books today what exactly do we expect from them? Historian Lincoln Paine considers what should be in our history.

The term globalization entered the popular lexicon in the 1980s, but the phenomenon of globalization, which has effects not only across space but also through time, is not a spontaneous novelty. Despite what many partisans of the present day would have us believe, most spheres of human activity—trade, culture, migration, foodways, environmental crises, disease, language, and religion, to say nothing of diplomacy and war—have been globalized for centuries. Even so, the process of globalization began thousands of years ago, thanks especially to the work of enterprising mariners. We call the study of all this world history.

As the author of a recently published maritime history of the world (The Sea and Civilization written for a general audience, I have noticed an interesting pattern in readers’ responses. The most gratifying are from those who like the book and acknowledge the effort that the author and publisher put into its writing and production. Yet a number of them have remarked on the sheer quantity of names, places, dates, and events in the text—precisely the sort of thing one might reasonably expect to find in any world history. These observations, including cracks about what’s on the quiz, have me wondering what it is we expect when we read world history, or any account of past events.

Unlike any other cultural activity, reading is freighted with anxiety-inducing memories of school, where the default means of determining whether students have read something is to test their command of the contents. Given the volume of data contained in even the sparest of narrative histories (to say nothing of the opinions or thesis of the author and the bias and interests of the teacher), even the best written exam is little more than a fishing expedition of often inexplicable, or at least unexplained, value. Whether this is the most effective way to use the written word in the classroom is not my concern here. But the fact that most people’s engagement with books in school leaves such negative memories has a deleterious effect on print culture and especially the way, and even whether, people read as adults.

For most of us, looking at art, listening to music, going to a movie, or attending a live performance whether theater, dance, or even sports, is an aesthetic experience. Reading can be, too. We do not go to museums fearful of being judged on what we will or won’t remember of the artists, their works, dates, styles, and influences any more than we watch baseball anxious that someone will discover we don’t know the difference between sliding and a slider. While the metaphor of “inside baseball” is used to describe the jargon-laden, inner workings of any discipline, in fact most people who enjoy and understand baseball do so not through rote memorization of statistics, rulebooks, and histories, but thanks to repeated engagement with the game as spectators.

Why should our approach to world history be any different? More to the point, how—and why—should we read world history?

The simplest and most useful reply to the second question is that it is your world and your history. Someone else may do the work of teasing a narrative strand from the skein of all that’s happened over the past several thousand years. But even though the focus is on different people in different times, the story you are reading is your own. A more enticing answer is that the world is an endlessly fascinating place, and historians generally have the good sense to focus on the more interesting characters, events, and developments, and to give relevance to even the least obvious episodes from the past.

The simplest and most useful reply to the second question is that it is your world and your history. Someone else may do the work of teasing a narrative strand from the skein of all that’s happened over the past several thousand years.

At a more practical level, many of us hold forth, often boldly and at length, about what is going on in the world without knowing all that much about it. Inasmuch as we are entitled to pontificate about world affairs—journalists, politicians, and bloggers take note—it is not unreasonable to ask that we have a basic understanding of what we are talking or voting about, some point of comparison, and a basic appreciation of influences and orientations not our own. The point is not to cultivate a homogenized, politically correct worldview; the most casual reading of history will demonstrate the folly of such an enterprise. It is, rather, to get a grasp of the sorts of experiences and cultures that inform other people’s worldviews.

Our world’s history is complicated, no doubt, but it is hardly indecipherable and there are practical ways to approach reading a book about it. A map—easily had on the internet—and a sense of time are invaluable. You don’t need to know specific dates of everything, but you can start with a few benchmarks. Cats were domesticated roughly ten thousand years before cat videos. The pyramids were built about halfway between then and now; Confucius and Buddha lived around halfway between the pyramids and the present; Viking expansion began about 1200 years ago; and so on.

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‘The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World’ by Lincoln Paine. 784 p. Knopf. $25.30 ()

No two histories are structured exactly the same, but many can be profitably approached by first reading the cover copy, table of contents, introduction, the concluding chapter, and then the beginning and end of each chapter. Armed with a rough outline of the author’s trajectory, you can then go back and start shading in the detail. This is not cheating. The order of words in a book is dictated by the linear nature of the medium. But writing a book is not like writing an exam, in which you put down everything you know as fast as you can. Authors begin with ideas and plans, and work their way down to the sentence level from there; readers can, too.

Keep in mind that the point of reading history is not to memorize every jot and tittle of every story and anecdote, but to get a sense of humanity’s progress (and sometimes regress). You can always go back and look up a name or date if you need, though chances are you won’t. For while history is about asking questions, what and why are more important than who, when, and where.

Our ancestors were remarkable people, and a thoughtful remembrance of who they were and what they accomplished is a small payment on our incalculable debt to them. If we can condition ourselves to ask about them the sorts of questions that give us pause, we can begin to think more sensibly—though no less passionately and appreciatively—about our world and our places in it.