Thursday, 1 February 2007

Fast Forwarding Through History

The first-ever Newbery award-winner, The Story of Mankind, written and illustrated by Hendrik Willem van Loon, is difficult to review not because it isn’t flawed (flaws being meat to any reviewer) but because of the general conclusion I keep reaching that at least one of its main flaws were inevitable. The Story of Mankind begins its tale in the very dawn of the existence of our planet, when what we now call Earth was a ball of flaming matter, and ends with a chapter about the turn of the millennium, which tries to forecast the impact such forces as the internet, Dolly the cloned sheep, and ozone pollution will have on our future. The mere thought of the intellectual task it must have been to condense all of human history into less than 700 pages makes me feel in need of a lie down. Add to this goal van Loon’s intention to make this comprehensive history a book that children could not only read but would enjoy reading and you have a project overwhelming in its sheer magnitude. Reading the book can be a bit like being a passenger in a car the driver insists on driving too fast. The passenger calls out, "Slow down! I want to get a better look at that!" and the driver yells back, "Can't! We've got a lot of ground to cover before the perfect bound spine exceeds its page count limit!"

Hendrik van Loon wrote that he had but one rule in selecting material for his book: “Did the country or the person in question produce a new idea or perform an original act without which the history of the entire human race would have been different?” This is certainly a good rule, but van Loon’s application of it is somewhat problematic. His concept of the “entire human race” seems to have a definite bias towards the members of western civilization. As a result his idea of the defining events of history seems to be those events that shaped specifically western civilization, and so the book is Eurocentric. When I read The Story of Mankind I got a definite sense of a long funnel of events ever narrowing in scope until its last chapters (updated by various other people since Hendrik van Loon’s death in 1944) become unapologetically absorbed with purely American history. I cannot see how anyone using a “definitive events only” rule can possibly justify the mention of John Lennon’s murder or even of Watergate when the book includes nothing of the development of China’s ancient civilization. However, I will concede that it would be very difficult, if not impossible to write such a book without some sort of bias. And at least, when aiming for impartiality and a narrative schema, van Loon did not go to such desperate lengths as the producers of the 1957 movie, “The Story of Mankind”. The movie uses the premise of an outer space tribunal meeting to decide the fate of humankind, with the Devil (played by Vincent Price) and the Spirit of Mankind (played by Ronald Colman) arguing opposite sides of the case and providing evidence in the form of flashbacks from different eras of history. It all sounds so generally terrible in an enjoyable sort of way that I'm tempted to see it.

Another, less qualified, criticism of the book is that the updates added to the end could have been better done. The book is no Newbery winner in its current state. As well as I can trace the history of the updates, The Story of Mankind, originally published in 1921, was updated in 1926 by Hendrik van Loon, at some indeterminate point by van Loon’s son Willem van Loon, in 1972 by the publishers and several New York University professors, and in 1984 and 1999 by John Merriman of Yale University. I don’t know how much revision has been done to the original text of the book, but the added chapters feel very patchy and disruptive for the reader. If the reader comes across the phrase “forty years ago” and has to stop and use the copyright dates and updating information in the publisher’s note to figure out from which date to subtract the forty years, it’s time the book was better integrated. I can certainly understand why this wasn’t done. If the publishers revise the book to make it seamless they will risk losing the charming, grandfatherly voice and personal asides of Hendrik van Loon. But the present, jarring, juxtaposition of the original text with the updates is a bad compromise, and surely a better one can be found if the publishers and authors will dare to be less reverential. It would also be a good idea if the last part of the book were far less focused on the U.S., and I’m not just saying that because Canada’s name only appeared in the book eight times (only two of which mentions the indexer saw fit to note). I will say, though, that the line drawings added to the book by Dirk van Loon are if anything better than his grandfather's - they are as charming in their rough, amateurish way, and funny as well, which Hendrik van Loon's weren't. The sketch of a scientist squeezing identical sheep out of what looks like a large cake decorating cylinder (and which is marked "CLONING") is the wittiest of the entire book.

Reading back over what I’ve written so far, I feel I haven’t done justice to this book. So I will say that The Story of Mankind is truly is a notable achievement, and I so wish I had read and re-read it as a child. As I made my way through it I could feel my scattered bits of knowledge of the past slotting themselves into place in the framework Hendrik van Loon so ably built for us, and I wondered how much more historical information I would have retained if I’d the sense of its place and relation to the human timeline that this book could have given me.

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