Rating: 2/5 (might have been a 1, but it has amusing illustrations)
1922 was the first year in which the Newbery Medal was awarded. Apparently, The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon was the near-unanimous pick. If so, it hasn’t aged well.
As someone with undergraduate degrees in history and anthropology, I expected this book to hold my interest better than it did. The premise, as the title states, is to provide an overview of the entire history of the human race. To some degree, it accomplished this. However, its excessive wordiness, lack of coherent organization (the author jumps back and forth in time seemingly at will), and poor pacing made this a slog to read.
The story begins with the formation of the planet, moves through the evolution of man, and continues through recorded history up to the Great War. The coverage in some places is extensive, while cursory in others. This is, of course, partially the nature of such a broad overview of history. The author claimed to aim for impartiality but frequently made value judgments on the cultures about which he wrote. For example, van Loon adored the moderate Athenians, considered the Spartans selfish and rather brutish, favored the Protestant Reformation leaders, and saw the good in Napoleon. Author wordiness was, however, a bigger problem than his biases towards certain parts of his subject matter. He adored the parentheses and used it extensively, as this rather ridiculous passage about Athenian slavery illustrates.
Despite the overall abysmal readability of the book, it did have a few redeeming qualities. The author’s conversational style presented some witty gems. I posted some of my favorites to our associated Tumblr account. A brief sample of his discussion of the Middle Ages: “They cut down the forests and they cut each other’s throats with equal energy (174).” Van Loon also emphasized the importance of critical thinking, writing, “don’t be satisfied with the mere statement that ‘such and such a thing happened there and there.’ Try to discover the hidden motives behind every action and then you will understand the world around you much better (370).” This is a valuable message for any and every age. Towards the end of the book, he spends a few paragraphs outlining his personal background and biases. From a critical perspective, it is enormously useful that he takes the time to meditate on his own subjectivity as he indirectly tells the reader which sections are most likely to contain bias. I only wish that perspective had infused the book a wee bit more.
Overall, this book is NOT recommended. The factual information is uncited, outdated, and buried amongst streams of unnecessary verbiage. Do yourself a favor and skip this one.
Let me end with a quote from the author himself:
“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.” 446
Foolish, foolish publishers.