BY SEAN CLARK
This book has been chosen as a Great Read
Author: Anthony Pagden
2008, Random House
So I’ll say right away that I really enjoyed Worlds at War (I’ve nominated it a Great Read). I don’t have much experience with history books, so writing this review was a tad tricky. It would take 3000 words to summarize this book even cursorily, so I can’t do that. Therefore, this review is pretty short, but please don’t mistake my brevity for disregard.
This book is broad, dense, and long. Pagden covers 2500 years of human history, exploring the divide between the East and the West, a divide rooted in geography and perpetuated through ideology. From the battles between the ancient Persians and Greeks to the current war in Iraq, the sheer amount of information Pagden is able to distill and share is staggeringly impressive. And despite all the learning going on, I found the book quite entertaining. Pagden displays a knack for delving just far enough into his subjects to make characters of them, and teasing out history into a satisfying storyline.
The writing is neither overwrought nor dry. The voice carries a professorial confidence and authority, and Pagden isn’t afraid of breaking out some big words. What I most enjoyed, however, was his manner of synthesizing the past and present thematically, of identifying causal relationships across long spans of history (say, between a shift in thought during the Renaissance and its implications for modern diplomacy).
The tying together of ideas across eras is really the strength of Pagden’s history. This book is more than merely a bunch of names and dates, or stories rattled off in chronological order. The narrative approach really adds to the enjoyment of the book. I don’t have much of a mind for raw facts—I finished the book a week ago and most have floated out of my head already—but the shape of the narrative has stuck with me.
Pagden does show a bit of bias (he tends to side with the Western ideologies), but he cops to that in his introduction. The book never crosses any lines though, nor does Pagden turn it into a soapbox. On the whole, he keeps a pretty solid semblance of objectivity.
Anyone interested in history books will find a lot to like about this book. It’s also a great choice for someone who might want an entry point into history books. There’s a ton of interesting and entertaining content contained within, and plenty of thought-provoking stuff as well. It’s a big bear of a book though, so if you want to carry it around without tossing out your back, you may want to look into the audiobook.
Similar reads: The Bridge on the Drina (Andrić), A History of the Crusades (Runciman)