The Story of Mankind provides a cursory glance at important events throughout history. An odd blend of history and mythology, this book is essentially a high school history textbook masquerading as a children’s literary prize winner.
Published in 1921, Hendrik Willem van Loon’s goal was to present an all-encompassing overview of the important historical events that shaped our modern world. Unfortunately, the book covers too large of a scope (from prehistoric times to the Cold War era) and throws too much random information at the reader. There is just too much history to handle in this one book. It is such a mishmash of religious wars, year-long conquests, and ancient civilizations, that many big events become small footnotes in the text. The sheer number of dates and names alone will leave you in a daze, making it easy to get lost in all the details.
And this guy wants to cover everything about the past. While reading this book, the reader will become reacquainted with prehistoric mankind, get a refresher course on reading Egyptian hieroglyphics, learn how humanity’s propensity for laziness brought about the invention of the steamboat, and be lectured on the etymology of names you will most likely forget.
While this book would have been fine as a simple historical text, van Loon’s intrusive voice was rather patronizing. While you may be reading page after page about the conquests of Napoleon, all of a sudden, van Loon might go off on a tangent about his cat looking out of a window or philosophize on the effects of war on mankind. His musings end up reading like a condescending grandfather telling a child his version of history with some personal reflections added in for good measure.
Although the text was a drudge to get through, the best part of the book was the animated historical illustrations strewn throughout the book. Van Loon’s drawings, while most likely not intended to be comedic, make it worthwhile to skim through the pages as they provide some amusing commentary on dreary subjects.
While the book may have been a masterpiece in the 1920s, it no longer reads well in the modern era. This book is nothing like fine wine; age has not made it better. An early review of the book hypes it as “the most invigorating, and I venture to predict, the most influential children’s book for many years to come.” It even inspired a campy fantasy film, featuring an all-star cast. Today, reading this book is a chore.
Do yourself a favor and let it keep collecting dust on the shelf.