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Book Review


McNeill, William H., Jerry H. Bentley, David Christian, David Levinson, J.R. McNeill, Heidi Roupp, and Judith P. Zinsser, eds. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History (Berkshire Publishing Group, 2005). 2,221 pp, $575.00.

     I recall reading somewhere that one of the joys of historical pursuit lay precisely in having a road map — and then summarily veering off into tangent upon tangent. A footnote in an obscure text leads to a curious discussion miles from where you once were headed, and that, in turn, points you in yet another unpredictable direction. 1
     Encyclopedias, perhaps, demand such intellectual improvisation — after all, who among us has the patience to read an encyclopedia, cover to cover, as if it were a single narrative history? Facilitating just such mindful wandering is the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, a five-volume set released earlier this year. The set's editors — a who's who of some of the most influential and distinguished world historians among us, includes, as senior editor, William H. McNeill, and an editorial staff headed by world history luminaries such as Jerry H. Bentley, David Christian, David Levinson, John R. McNeill, Heidi Roupp, and Judith P. Zinsser. The combined 2,221 pages of the Berkshire Encyclopedia amount to an extraordinary range of scholarship organized and presented in a fashion useful to fellow professors, college students, and secondary teachers and their students. 2
     Volume 1 begins with an alphabetized list of the 538 subject entries, followed by the 34 thematic categories by which the entries have been organized. The categories range from continents to commerce, and from periodization to population. As for the entries themselves, the breadth is stunning. In addition to the expected„discussions of, for example, the Columbian Exchange (authored, appropriately, by Alfred Crosby) and decolonization„the encyclopedia's editors traveled far afield with the inclusion of such arguably obscure topics as anthroposphere (the part of the biosphere affected by humans), bullroarers, travel guides, and the Wagadu empire of the west African sahel. 3
     William McNeill supplies a brief historiographical essay on the development of history as a discipline. He begins by discussing the Israelite, Greek, and Chinese historians of antiquity. He pauses to mention some of the towering figures in historiography, including Ibn Khaldun and Giambattista Vico, before moving on to discuss the general contours of historical thinking that led, eventually, to the nationalist-liberal Eurocentric tradition of the 19th century. That, in turn, sets the 20th century stage for the emergence of the so-called "new" world history practiced by an increasing number of scholars. It also provides the context within which the Berkshire Encyclopedia becomes a relevant and vital addition to the field. To complement McNeill's historiographical essay, David Christian has a short survey of world history that, despite its brevity, is quite remarkable. Appropriately titled "This Fleeting World," this 56-page overview reflects the very wide "Big History" lens through which Professor Christian has earned acclaim among his peers and, it would seem, among non-specialists. 4
     The overall merit of the encyclopedia lies in the generally high quality of the more than 500 individual entries. Varying in length depending on the subject, the encyclopedia's contributors wrote with the non-specialist in mind. To wit, the set's treatment of the Indian Ocean should appeal to just about every level of world history student. The "Maritime History" entry's seven-page chronology of seafaring history provides a case in point. Not unexpectedly, the entry focuses on the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea until the early-modern European trans-Atlantic voyages. The coverage, although general, is certainly valuable. It is in the six-page entry "Trading Patterns, Indian Ocean," however, that one explores the critically important network in depth. The handling of "Trading Patterns" is superb, even if it doesn't represent fresh scholarship. Similarly focused narratives of the Mediterranean, Mesoamerica, the Pacific, and the Trans-Saharan trade routes — entries that may profit the Indian Ocean specialist, follow it. 5
      The set's shortcomings are few but obvious. First, the editors failed to cross-reference "Maritime History" and "Trading Patterns" with one another. Indeed, although a great many entries encourage and facilitate cross-reference "wandering" through the volumes — for example, in the way "Diasporas" does ("see also Asian Migrations; Expansion, European; Global Migration in Modern Times; Migrations; Pacific, Settlement of") — the lack of direction given in some of the maritime/trade entries does suggest a degree of unevenness. Second, the spelling and pronunciation guide of "100 important people, places, and terms in world history" is also uneven. Some entries are helpful (Mencius: MEN-chee-us), while others perhaps unnecessary (e.g. "Jesus" and "Egypt"). Oddly, Khubilai Khan merits inclusion in this rather exclusive list of 100, but he fails to make the cut of 110 biographical entries in the main body of the encyclopedia itself. There are a great many students of world history who could have profited from this section being made substantially longer. 6
     On more minor notes, the page numbers for the maps listed near the beginning of volume 1 are omitted. At a more superficial level, the Berkshire Encyclopedia's dominant art motif is by turns both clever and irritating. The motif is that of the prehistoric cave art of France and Spain — arresting figures of humans hunting big game. This motif, adumbrated on the cover of each volume, includes not just the icons of hunters and game, but also humans with a plow, in business suits, and riding skateboards. The motif is certainly clever in the way it extends "cave art" to the post-modern world, but the stick figures' placement throughout the five volumes comes off as purposeless and vaguely sophomoric. And finally, it's not clear exactly what is achieved by including Professor Christian's "This Fleeting World" twice in the set — once, near the beginning (which is where it naturally fits); and a second time at the end of volume 5. 7
     Criticisms notwithstanding, the Berkshire Encyclopedia is undeniably valuable as a source of quick and reliable reference for scholars and non-specialists alike. Beyond that, the set clearly has applications for secondary teachers within the classroom. The encyclopedia does, on balance, provide useful guidance for students pursuing a historic thread through multiple entries. In addition, the short bibliographies following each entry are invaluable for more in-depth "wandering." Inasmuch as each of the standard World History texts have weaknesses — if not outright blind spots — the Berkshire Encyclopedia can fill an important niche as a sort of back-up to the primary text. In addition, the wide range of topics and general accessibility of the writing all but beg teachers to find some way of incorporating the set into their curriculum. 8
Morgan Falkner
Rio Rico High School

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