Monday, 18 January 2010

A Little History of the World

Foyles, the once bonkers but now mildly eccentric and well stocked book-selling institution on London’s Charing Cross Road, has announced a pleasant surprise for history lovers. Its best-selling book of 2009 was E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World (Yale University Press).

Gombrich was a son of that most civilized of milieus, interwar Viennese Jewry – his mother was a pupil of the great composer Anton Bruckner. Many Viennese Jews who got out in time to escape the gas chambers found exile in Britain, much to the cultural benefit of their hosts. Gombrich, who had a lifelong association with the University of London’s Warburg Institute, ended up a knight of the realm and is most famous for authoring The Story of Art (millions of copies which have been sold).

He wrote Eine kurze Weltgeshicte für junge Leser as a hurried commission in 1935. It eventually appeared in English in the author’s own translation in 2005. It is the best world history ever written for intelligent children and it will do its adult readers no harm either. That it is Foyle best-selling book of the year is proof that while we are indeed all living in the gutter, some of us – and more than we might think – are looking at the stars.

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