New Internationalist

The perils of writing a history of the world

Here, author Chris Brazier discusses the difficulties faced when writing The No-Nonsense Guide to World History, a title which aims to embrace the whole of history, rather than disconnected dynasties and events, all in one slim volume. Chapter 1, plus the Introduction and Foreward are available online, as well as weekly blogs for our other No-Nonsense titles.

The perils of writing a history of the world

When I first embarked on writing a brief history of the world, my colleagues at the New Internationalist thought I was mad. They thought it would be impossible for me to complete the task in the time I’d allowed for it – and that it would be impossible to squeeze it into the space of a single magazine.

They were wrong on the first count – I managed to deliver it on time. But they were right on the second – I had to go to the co-operative meeting, cap in hand, and plead my case for doubling the size of the magazine to accommodate my magnum opus. This was back in 1989. I little thought that, 12 years later, it would be spliced together with another of my bursts of research and writing – on the radical history of the 20th century – to form the basis of a book. And still less would I have imagined the book being successful enough to have gone into its third edition 10 years down the line.

When the idea of the second edition was first mooted, in 2006, I initially resisted the idea that I should add a chapter at the end on the events of the 21st century, including 9/11. Surely a history of the world was one book that shouldn’t need updating? One of the points I’d made very clearly in the original edition was that, while historians always view events through their own particular lens, they are less able to unpick their own bias when those events are very recent – we are all less able to stand back from matters in which we feel personally engaged. I make no claim to being a historian but, all the same, I was bound to be much more wary about my judgment of events that we had only just lived through than about, say, the invasion of China by Genghis Khan in 1215. But when it actually came down to it, I was in little doubt as to what even future historians were likely to say about the invasion of Iraq.

Writing an update for the third edition (out now) was more problematic. I could write about the financial crash of 2007-8, even though we are still living through the effects of that and will continue to do so for many years to come, because there was a clear historical pattern that lay behind it. I can’t unfortunately claim that I withdrew all my ethical pension funds out of the market and put them into a safer investment but in retrospect I don’t know why I did not, because my fellow editors and I had been talking for some time about a looming crash based on the unsustainability of US debt.

A bigger problem was to know exactly what to say about the popular revolts in the Arab world that were unfolding even as I wrote. I certainly couldn’t ignore them but there were new outcrops of rebellion and repression with almost every passing day and the chances of leaving large portions of egg on my face seemed pretty darned good. You will need to read the new edition to judge whether I have escaped unscathed – though I don’t doubt that you will anyway find plenty to disagree with in the book as a whole. It is sweeping, presumptuous, judgmental – and it wears its particular biases (towards the ‘hidden’ histories of women, the poor, Africa and so on) very firmly on its sleeve. But maybe, just maybe, reading about all the various ages of our human forebears at such a short sitting puts us in a closer relationship with them – and gives us a touch more chance of avoiding their worst mistakes.

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  1. #1 Brad 29 Sep 11

    An enlightening perspective.

    As one Oxford academic has said of this book, 'Perhaps every professional historian should be required to write a history of the world in forty thousand words - nothing would be more conducive to humility.'

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About the author

Chris Brazier a New Internationalist contributor

Once a writer for the rock music weekly Melody Maker (1977-80), Chris Brazier has been a co-editor of New Internationalist magazine since 1984. He has covered myriad subjects from masculinity to maternal mortality, Panafricanism to the paranormal, and has edited country issues on South Africa, Burkina Faso, Western Sahara, Bangladesh, Iran, China and Vietnam. He edits the country profile section of the magazine as well as its puzzle page. Since 2010 he has focused primarily on commissioning and editing New Internationalist’s books and other publications. He has also written regularly for UNICEF’s annual The State of the World’s Children report since 1997.

Chris is the author of Vietnam: The Price of Peace (Oxfam, 1992), The No-Nonsense Guide to World History (2001, 2006 & 2010) and Trigger Issues: Football (2007). He also compiled the New Internationalist anthologies Raging Against the Machine (2003) and Brief Histories of Almost Anything (2008).

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