A brisk and cheerfully traditional trip through our history, from Homo erectus to George W. Bush.
Davis (ret., History/Univ. of Pennsylvania) is cautiously optimistic in this view of our past. In a piece of poetic piffle that serves as an epilogue, he writes, “The world’s still cruel, that’s understood, / But once was worse. So far so good.” He tells us immediately that he will be slighting women (after all, he says, much of history is like a Shakespeare play—all parts played by men) and ignoring much that was minor. This results in a highly conventional chronicle: migrations, explorations, and discoveries, wars, revolutions, and politics. The arts didn’t survive the final cut, except for some analysis of prehistoric cave paintings and Greek drama. Neither does he find much space for popular culture, though he devotes five pages to the rise of McDonald’s—about the same amount he allows for the French Revolution. Last century’s world wars get more thorough treatment, as does the Holocaust. He tries valiantly to particularize, sometimes to great effect. We learn that in 1991 some women offered to bear the child of the frozen 5,000-year-old “Iceman” just found in the Alps. He tells us that Galileo’s blindness may have come from his staring at the sun through a telescope. These details add flesh to the skeleton of flitting history. The author does stake out positions occasionally: using the atomic bomb against Japan was probably a good idea; invading Iraq last year was probably not. Davis’s tone is so light that he sometimes miscalculates (must we be reminded that the pyramids had a burial function?). And at times he brushes up against the controversial, as when he points out the benefits of imperialism (better railroads and schools). He strives mightily to appear impartial regarding the claims of various religions, although he does not call Joseph the father of Jesus. No, Joseph was the man who raised Jesus.
Swift, simple, unremarkable. (9 maps, 4 line illustrations)