Navigating History Without a Map: Review of The Story of Mankind

“Why should we ever read fairy stories, when the truth of history is so much more interesting and entertaining?”
Hendrik Willem Van Loon, The Story of Mankind

The pristine condition of this book should have tipped me off that the patrons of my local library prefer the fairy stories.

The first winner of the Newbery Medal, Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind provides an account of historical events “without which the history of the entire human race would have been different.” Finding it a challenge to be concise, Van Loon wishes that he “could make this book a thousand pages long.”

See the picture on the cover? It’s the only one found in this edition.

Oh, but I am so glad he didn’t. Getting through the near 300 pages of the edition I read was difficult enough. Speaking of book editions, since its 1921 printing, The Story of Mankind has been updated for later editions to bring its historical account closer to the present. Though the one I read was from 2008, the historical coverage matched the original. Yet, the original book had more than 100 illustrations, all of which were lacking in the version I read. It’s frustrating to read a book that references maps when there aren’t any maps.

Edition differences aside and since I intend to focus my Newbery book reviews primarily on the writing, I already indicated my dislike for this one. First, it was dry for my taste, as I prefer reading fast-paced fiction to feeling like I’m wading through a middle school textbook (at least those have pictures). Certain parts dragged; for example, it seemed like I was reading about Napoleon forever. He gets his own chapter and references in eight of the 10 that follow, with three mentions in preceding chapters. (It bugged me enough to go back and count.) Van Loon at least acknowledges the drier parts of his work near the end of the book:

The publishers wanted to print a history that should have rhythm—a story which galloped rather than walked. And now that I have almost finished I discover that certain chapters gallop, that others wade slowly through the dreary sands of long forgotten ages—that a few parts do not make any progress at all, while still others indulge in a veritable jazz of action and romance. I did not like this and I suggested that we destroy the whole manuscript and begin once more from the beginning. This, however, the publishers would not allow.

Way to blame somebody else. Seriously though, while it’s not for me, I am sure there are history and nonfiction lovers out there who do and would enjoy the book much more than I.

Second, Van Loon’s account of history (which he suggests includes the parts he considers most important) at times comes across as irritatingly subjective. I appreciate, however, that he addresses this as well:

I state these few facts deliberately that you may know the personal bias of the man who wrote this history and may understand his point-of-view. The bibliography at the end of this book, which represents all sorts of opinions and views, will allow you to compare my ideas with those of other people. And in this way, you will be able to reach your own final conclusions with a greater degree of fairness than would otherwise be possible.

Fie on my edition again — as well as no illustrations, it lacked the bibliography. Had I read an edition with these features, it may have added more interest, but my critique of the written content would remain the same. As for the copy I read, I expect the poor book will maintain its pristine appearance.

In lieu of stars, I give The Story of Mankind two missing maps out of five.

This post is part of a series about my goal to read through the Newbery Medal books. How I came about embarking on this task can be read here.


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