The Daily Beast
Why We Should Read World History
December 25th 20135:45 AM
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
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.
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
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
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.