Best known for his classic fiction, HG Wells also wrote a non-fiction book summarizing the history of the world, going from the history of the solar system, right up to the date the book was published in 1922.
As I hoped, the book often reads like a novel, with 67 distinct sections, each like a mini story. In order to fit the history of the whole world into one book, by nature the story telling ranges from nice and rapid, to a little too rapid. I found it rather like a catalog of numerous interesting little nuggets of information. Despite covering events from all over the world, the topics often flow seamlessly from one topic to the next. Due to so many overlapping topics, this history of the world isn’t told in a linear purely chronological pattern, but has to go backwards a little, now and again.
At various times throughout, the stories are gripping and Wells successfully brings history to life. I particularly liked the various sections on religious leaders. Appropriately, Wells tackles religion as would any unbiased historian-become storyteller. I also enjoyed the beginning, where Wells paints a crystal clear picture of our solar system and the vast empty space that our dramas are within. His description of our galaxy sounds nothing short of beautiful.
The book was meant to be predominantly factual, but Wells did include a substantial amount of speculation and opinion. This does not distract from the story-line, but adds value in generating the concepts of the time periods.
It covers progress and prosperity as much as carnage and decimation, and provides good explanations of everything it covers. (Although it would benefit from more illustrations). At times it feels detail heavy but also gives the reader a feel for each age – the book is not limited to which country went to war with which country and when, but also examines changes in ways of thinking through the ages. Including the Ancient Greek philosophers, Arabian progress in maths and science, the advent of experimental science, and the development of political and social ideas in Wells’ time.
I was reassured to learn that despite not studying the history of the world in its entirety in school, I was already familiar with much of the book’s content. Having said that, there were also topics where I really felt I was learning something. I read Wells’ opinion on why the Roman Empire fell, and how the industrial revolution was not merely a revolution in machinery, but rather a revolution in how people conducted their everyday lives. There were also some important figures from history described that were never mentioned in my school days, particularly Charlemagne and Roger Bacon.
Towards the end of the book, Wells correctly predicts another war like that of the Great War. However his final message was one of faith and hope in humanity’s progress.
With such a huge scope, Wells must have struggled with deciding what topics to include and what to exclude. I thought he ought to have included a touch more detail on Ancient Egypt, and on the causes of the Great War (World War 1). As a British person myself I would have liked to have seen more on British history.
Likewise, if the book were written now rather than 1922 I began to speculate on what he would and wouldn’t have included. I imagine there would certainly be a section on World War 2, rockets into space, the internet, and 9/11. He would have provided an excellently conducted section on how humans are destroying the planet.
One of the beauties of this book has to be its availability. If you type “short history of the world” into Google, the free PDF of this book takes up much of the first 2 pages of results. If you’re sketchy on world history, this book will fill in the main blanks, and is worth a read if this is your aim, especially if you wish to do so quickly. The fact that it’s split up into so many succinct sections also means that you can pick up and put down the book as often as opportunity allows. It also works well as reference book, as it does not need to be read from cover to cover in order to look up one particular event or time period.
In summary, this book would be a welcome addition to book shelf (or ebook library) of the general non-fiction fan or historian.