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Book Review


Brazier, Chris. The No-Nonsense Guide to World History (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications, 2001). 144 pp, $10.00.

     In The No-Nonsense Guide to World History, one of ten books in a series of No-Nonsense Guides, Chris Brazier takes on the mammoth task of telling the entire story of the history of the world, from slime to space travel, in under one hundred-fifty pages. The book is intended for readers with a basic knowledge of European history but with little background in Asian and African history. Although it often reads like an abridged textbook (complete with boxed sections), Brazier's book does not seem aimed at students in particular. Its quick pace and largely chronological organization ensures accessibility for students (high school and college underclassmen) and casual readers alike. 1
     In a book this size, it would be impossible to give a complete account of any number of historical events. Brazier instead focuses on giving basic facts about unfamiliar locales and highlighting a few themes that lend consistency to the thousands of years discussed. The power and influence of religion, the subjugation of women, and the financial and social inequalities between elites and "ordinary people" are especially prominent. These three themes are woven together as Brazier cites the rise of monotheisms and the foundation of Judaism (focused on a specifically male deity) as the origin of sexual inequality, a social evil further institutionalized as religious groups consolidated power and political control across the globe. 2
     The chronology of Brazier's book is rather familiar. He begins with slime, progressing through hunting-gathering toward sedentary agriculture. Religions develop and are followed by the Dark Ages, where Brazier provides little information. While Asia and the Middle East are integrated into the basic chronology, Africa (with the exception of Egypt) and the Americas are largely separate entities which each get a chapter following Columbus's journey and the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. A brief explanation of absolute monarchy and feudalism is all that intercedes before American independence. Brazier ends his history at World War II, but provides a seven page timeline which includes considerable detail on the Cold War period. 3
     The No-Nonsense Guide to World History concentrates on a number of themes familiar to world historians. Brazier effectively demonstrates that most technological advancements that helped allow Europe to become dominant in the nineteenth century (Brazier considers paper one of the most important) actually had their roots in China, India, and the Middle East. Although this helps advance a common world history goal – debunking Euro-centrism – Brazier's focus on technological advancement suddenly disappears between Columbus and the Industrial Revolution. Neither the Enlightenment nor the Scientific Revolution is discussed in the book, and this leads to the impression that the American and French Revolutions were rather spontaneous uprisings of "ordinary people" against unjust oppressors. 4
     Economic connections are another familiar theme. Brazier discusses how agriculture and husbandry led to increased specialization, which in turn led to increased leisure time. The important position of the Mongols as cultural and economic trading partners across Eurasia is clearly demonstrated. He shows the strength of the Chinese and Indian economies prior to European penetration and highlights the roles of silver and opium in aiding European designs. He deftly discusses the Industrial Revolution and the ensuing structure of colonies providing raw materials for industry and markets for finished products. Economic inequalities are also a dominant theme, and in this regard the Marxist tenor of the book is thinly veiled. Brazier is constantly creating dichotomies which divide the haves from the have-nots; indeed, he sees these divisions as a recurring force consistently leading to revolutions of social improvement, and even goes so far as to call Mao's revolution a "fantastic achievement." 5
      Another important element of world history, the environment, is unfortunately omitted through the majority of the book, although the manner in which environment and geography influenced the shape of history is tacitly included. Notions of a Mediterranean trading world and the physical isolation of Australia and the Americas, for example, are hinted at, but may be buried a bit too deeply for discovery by the intended audience. Human influence on the environment is briefly discussed in the book's final chapter. 6
     That final chapter is one of the book's greatest tools. The first nineteen chapters read suspiciously like a textbook. However, the last chapter reads more as the conclusion of a monograph. Brazier ends his history at World War II, choosing to discuss the personal biases that affect the writing of history, especially recent history, rather than provide his own biased interpretation of the last sixty years. Here he lucidly puts forth his major proposition: that technological progress does not equal social justice. He discusses problems with capitalism and the environment that humans will likely have to deal with in the coming century and rails against the Marxist notion of the "end of history." Brazier juxtaposes two interpretations of the twentieth century – Time magazine's laudatory and glorious "American Century" and a grimmer view of a century of genocide – to effectively demonstrate that "The march of history has more than one drumbeat." Admitting that historians are not all-knowing creatures is a valuable lesson, albeit one that is excluded from most introductory history texts. 7
     A book that deals with the entirety of world history in such a short space is bound to have its share of overgeneralizations (the most troubling here describes late nineteenth century America as a "single homogeneous culture"), and The No-Nonsense Guide to World History is no exception. Brazier is also surprisingly judgmental at times, calling war "pointless" on at least four occasions. This, however, lends a voice to the book that is not nearly as dry as the typical world history textbook. Combined with Brazier's final chapter, his voice makes this a much more enjoyable and retainable read. The length of the book prohibits Brazier from including many dates, but his supplemental seven page timeline helps clear up any chronological confusion. The other problems with this book, such as treating Africa in isolation, are common to other world history texts. While The No-Nonsense Guide to World History lacks the detail needed to make it effective as a textbook for a world history survey, it could be employed as a supplement to more Euro-centric textbooks. If supplemented properly with primary documents and monographs, it might even be possible to use this book as a chronological frame of reference in a world history survey course, possibly eliminating the need for a textbook. 8
     The No-Nonsense Guide to World History is an ambitious attempt to condense the entire history of the world into a book that fits comfortably in a back pocket. While its brevity leads necessarily to oversimplification, its generalizations are no more glaring than a typical world history text. Its chronological arrangement, boxed sections, and maps lend a familiar and accessible format to the book. Brazier's themes of inequality and the importance of ordinary people are drawn out remarkably well for such a short project, and his final chapter helps students understand how history is written. The No-Nonsense Guide to World History delivers what its title promises: a quick and straightforward interpretation of human history from ancestral apes to Zimbabwe. 9
Jon M. Flashnick
Arizona State University

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