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Book Review


David Christian, This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing, 2009; 120 pp. $14.95 (paperback)

     "Big" history is best when it's small. This book is only 92 pages long, plus a 15-page Preface (on how it was made and how to use it), an 8-page "Prequel" (on the human-free first 14 billion years), a list of resources (4 pages), an appendix on historical periodization (9 pages), an index (6), an author's profile (1), and two pages of advertisements for other products of its proud publisher, Berkshire. That was more than enough to create a major stir among the subscribers to the AP-World e-mail list this spring. Can the two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-year history of our exceptionally self-reverential species, perhaps even more worshipful of its subsets and subcultures, possibly be compressed into such a modest text, with only three major divisions? It's true that the history of Homo sapiens sapiens is only about a thousandth part of the history of our Mammalian order, and less than a sixty-two-thousandth part of the history of our planet Earth. In this not so fleeting world we might be a rather fleeting species, but we have certainly been here long enough to matter. Does this book do the trick? Yes, believe it or not, even against the background of several centuries of similar efforts, Christian's little book is the narrative that best meets the growing contemporary demand for a short "big history." I can imagine a long line of "universal" historians (as they called themselves), from Sima Qian and Ibn Khaldun to Walter Raleigh and Bishop Bossuet, smiling at Christian's omissions as they try to imagine a humanity appearing so long before 4,400 B.C. Spengler could sneer, but Toynbee and V. Gordon Childe ("G" is a typo for "V" on page 101), not to mention Marx, would nod sagely at Christian's economic fundamentalism. As for the McNeills, father and son, they are alive to wonder at the book's arresting slimness. No recent universal historian has come close to such compression, with the possible exception of Alfred Crosby's 166-page history of energy use, Children of the Sun (Norton, 2006).

     Veteran World historians and teachers will easily recognize Christian's three chronological divisions of humanity and few will disagree with their skeleton-key importance, judged economically and socially, if not religiously or politically. They are, first, the Paleolithic foragers, better known in our classrooms as the hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age; second, the farmers, dominating the world (and "civilizing" it with cities and letters) from the Neolithic about 10,000 B.C.E. to the Medieval, sometime after 1,000 C.E.; and third, the "Moderns," making over the world with the new economies of large-scale (industrial) production, beginning in China with a false start in the 11th century, and continuing in the West with an irreversible leap forward after about 1750 which has lasted until the present and promises to go on a while longer. From the point of view of Advanced Placement World History, which does not go much behind the first literate civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Punjab, north China, Nubia and Mesoamerica, the last two of these three divisions are by far the most important, though a World History of the Arts, or of Religion, or of Social Relations would be fearfully incomplete without those thousands of years of foragers, and even World Environmental History depends heavily on the assumptions we make about them. Christian is entirely aware of this, and teachers may trust that his appendix on periodization is a gem of concentrated learning about this very long debate.

     Can students use this book? Quite easily. My sixth-graders in Ancient History get from the Big Bang to the Paleolithic in a week with no text besides a timeline, slowing down thereafter to end with the fall of the Roman Republic. I think they would be delighted with This Fleeting World. It might also be the pre-reading in the summer before a high-school World History course. It might be the first assignment in a college course. It could even be the last, because although it can not easily reassure students about the details they will have learned, it can reassure them that they know what drugstore historical novels still celebrate as history's "sweep" across countries and generations. Despite its compactness, despite the logical necessity that all overviews have justification, recognizably religious or ethical, for their points of overview, This Fleeting World is neither catechistic nor dogmatic; and it invites rather than discourages student debate. In every chapter, it asks questions, deep but accessible ones, in boxes, adding a list of questions for research at the end of every chapter. It has pictures, rather than descriptions, of arts and technologies, and places them near text suggesting what could be asked about them. The best thing of all about this book, I think, is that it does not "cover" anything. Instead it maps it, deploying sparkling prose to entice the student to enlist in her or his education, to take on the project of finding his or her place in the world that is, and has been for 250,000 years, so increasingly full of others.

William Everdell, World History Connected's Book Review editor, has been teaching History at Saint Ann's School (co-ed, independent and non-denominational) in Brooklyn, New York, for 38 years. His elective for high school juniors and seniors is World History; but his youngest students are 6th-graders learning Ancient History and his oldest are in an adult extension course learning the Constitutional History of the U.S. Presidency. He has three books in print, one on the theory and practice of republican government since ancient Israel (The End of Kings, 2000), another on the origins of Modernism in the arts and sciences from 1872 to 1913 (The First Moderns, 1998), and on 18th-century thought (Christian Apologetics in France, 1987). He can be reached at


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