January 24, 2010


When your head is stuck in a score all day long, it's easy to forget about all the other fascinating things people are studying and working on all around you - like, for example, world history. I've always found history a fascinating subject, albeit a pretty overwhelming one. With too many ancient civilizations, confusing wars, political puzzles and surprising shifts of power to deal with, where do you start to understand all the mess which has happened before today? Visiting a friend in Hong Kong several years ago, I came upon the New Penguin History of The World in a bookshop. Unoriginally titled and 1232 pages thick, I thought this would be a book to own, and so I got it - only to stash it in a corner of my bookshelf behind "Metro maps of the world" for quite some time.

But, lo and behold! The New Penguin History of the World has finally made an appearance outside the bookshelf and my latest mission is to have the thing read and done with by the end of 2010 (or early 2016). One of the most important reasons to finally read this book is to have a clearer overview of history so as to be able to read fiction more easily. Of course, almost all fiction is set in the past, and lately it seems you're bound to make it onto the Booker prize shortlist as long as you set your novel faaaaaar back - consider Amitav Ghosh's superb Sea of Poppies, set in 19th century India, or this year's winner, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (I haven't begun it yet).

The book I'm now reading is Salman Rushdie's latest. Titled The Enchantress of Florence, it's actually set partly in the Mughal Empire and the Republic of Florence. We're talking about the 15th century here, but Republic of Florence? Isn't Florence a city? What exactly were the borders of the Mughal Empire in the 1400s? Enter Penguin's New History of the World. Setting Rushdie aside for a while, I sit up, brace my stomach muscles and plunge the bricklike book onto myself, opening at page 1. Book One: Before History - Beginnings (the book begins). "Where does History begin? It is tempting to reply "In the beginning"" - skip ahead a few pages to chapter one: The Foundations. That sounds more like it. "Scholars have long talked about Ice Ages". ICE AGES? Chapter two: Homo sapiens. Oh dear. How far do I have to read before I get to Indian princesses, ancient glittering cities like Samarkand or the Medici dynasty? That would probably be page 540: Europe's assault on the world. This is going to be a long read!

However, even the prehistoric beginnings of the book turn out to be fascinating. I learn about geological changes which happened "abruptly" - they took between 5 and 10 millenia - and civilizations which "quickly" established themselves all over the world - that is, in several hundred thousand years. Suddenly, a wristwatch looks absurd to me.


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