by James Wallace Harris, 11/21/22
I’m not going to try and review Susan Wise Bauer’s three-volume history of the world. It’s just too much. I’m just going to give you my impression of what they are like and let you decide if you want to read them. I got all three audiobooks on sale at Audible and at least one of the Kindle editions on sale, maybe two. So if you want to try one, wait for a sale. Although, I sort of wish I had gotten the hardback editions too. I find I actually read more if I listen to audiobook editions or read Kindle editions, but the hardbacks would let me just dip back into them from time to time.
Here are their titles. Their subtitles are more accurate than the main titles. Links are to the Kindle edition.
- The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome
- The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade
- The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople
First off, I knew very little of the history that Bauer presents. However, and this is a huge warning, it’s nearly all about wars, conquests, rulers, and reigns. If you like history with a story or interpretation, these books aren’t for you. It’s just the facts mam. And it’s relentless. It took me most of 2022 to get through seventy hours of audiobook listening because I could only handle it in spurts. All three volumes equal the length of some audiobook versions of the King James version of the Bible.
On the other hand, I was very impressed with Bauer’s writing. It’s concise and fascinating. She often refers to period sources, which I liked a lot. And she would reference later art and literature that looks back on history. I was impressed by how much poets and artists from the 18th and 19th centuries knew about history. We just aren’t the classical scholars people used to be.
Here is a sample from The History of the Renaissance World to give you an idea of Bauer’s prose and focus.
If you’ve ever been curious about all those Kings of England and France, then these books are for you. Another reason why I like Bauer’s history books is she covers more than the Western world. She jumps to the East and the New World too. Here are two timelines for a sample of how she jumps around. If you note the years, you’ll see that she almost goes year by year. These cover just a few chapters in the Renaissance book.
And each mention on the timelines mostly leads to a short game-of-thrones-like conflict. Human history is amazingly like HBO’s Game of Thrones. However, the TV show is much less violent and evil compared to history. And that’s the main takeaway I got from reading these three volumes of history. Most of humanity throughout history has suffered from the ambitions of a few. The people of history that have led us have nearly always led us into suffering. There are no “Great” leaders in history even if they have been bestowed that title.
I know there is a movement among conservatives to fight what’s called Critical Race Theory being taught in schools. Conservatives don’t want their children to feel bad about themselves. Well, they shouldn’t read any history then. Anyone who idolizes any leader from the past, or glorifies any era is deluding themselves. Anyone who gets easily depressed should not read these books or any history books that cover history honestly.
That’s another lesson from reading these books. We glamorize history. If you compare the movies made about the Crusades or the Middle Ages to what really happen, you realize we’re lying to ourselves. Knights and crusaders were not nice people and were definitely not chivalrous. Heroes are not what we think. Joseph Campbell was full of bullshit when he described the mythology by the hero. So was Tolkien. If you feel romantic about any story dealing with aristocracy then you are fooling yourself.
We have whitewashed history so thoroughly that many people long for the past. The whole heroic fantasy industry is just childish make-believe. Even dark violent fantasies like Game of Thrones are clean and nice in comparison to history. If Hollywood made films based on Bauer’s history books and filmed things as they happened I doubt few people could psychologically handle them.
I can’t say I recommend Bauer’s History of the World series. I’m glad I read them. I might even read them again. Many have recommended we study history so we won’t repeat it. After reading these books I’m now confident we can’t break out of the loop.
When I was a kid I wanted to know the truth. Obviously, we can’t handle the truth. I keep trying. Studying history is like pistol-whipping myself to handle a little more truth. I face reality in tiny bits and then run back to escapist hiding, but I always poke my head out once in a while for a little bit more of reality.
Now that I’ve read these books I’m going to go hide for a while.
5 thoughts on “An Overwhelming Amount of History”
History is my professional field – I write on it internationally, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College in London on merit of my contribution to the scholarship at global level etc. And yeah, the lessons are clear. Humanity is a damaged species and keeps falling into the exact same traps. This is not to endorse ‘cyclic’ history (vide, Spengler, whose work was purely an over-thought metaphor; or Krondratiev’s long-term wave theory.) But at basic human level, while the narrative details always differ, the psychology behind events seldom does. I think our global civilisation is on the edge of a historic collapse now, by which I mean a multi-national, multi-factor collapse similar to the late Bronze Age collapse of c1270 BCE.
I’ve read that our species has been the same for 200,000 years. We just haven’t changed. Society changes but not us.
I read Cline’s book 1177 BC when it came out and there are many interesting parallels. Good call.
Anatomically yes, but not behaviorally. Or so I’ve heard: roughly around 40-50 Kya there was a big behavioral change in humans, before leaving africa. It could have been genetic.
“I’ve read that our species has been the same for 200,000 years. We just haven’t changed. Society changes but not us.”
I agree with Matthew: we’re headed for a collapse as Climate Change wrecks havoc on our culture and society. I love reading History and once considered it as a possible Major in College. These books sound great and I’ll order them for “Santa” to deliver!