Monday, January 10, 2011

The Story of Mankind

Yes.  The whole story of mankind!!  Author Hendrik Van Loon takes us from primordial soup to post World War II (with the help of his son, Willem).  Van Loon, born in the Netherlands in 1882,  moved to the United States in 1902 to attend Cornell University.  He became a citizen of the U.S. in 1919.  In the introduction to the book, Van Loon states, "History is the mighty Tower of Experience, which Time has built amidst the endless fields of bygone ages.  It is no easy task to reach the top of this ancient structure, and get the benefit of the full view.  There is no elevator, but young feet are strong and it can be done."  This gives the basic reason behind taking on the task of writing a history of mankind (definite focus on the Western world).  When we can get the big picture of the past, we will be able to better see the path to the future.

From my point of view, having earned a BA in history, it was difficult to really enjoy such a superficial study.  Van Loon dealt with such a vast subject matter that he could not put much detail into any one topic.  From the point of view of a child there are a couple of things to consider.  First, the sheer size of the book would be daunting.  Second, the very subject matter would be rather off-putting to most children.  Third, if a child did pick this up to read, they would probably get a bit confused.  It wasn't too bad for me since I have a background in history, but I think it would be hard for a child to read it without having to ask a lot of questions, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it would make reading it frustrating for them.

Newbery wanted to help children be "strong, hardy, healthy, virtuous, wise and happy." I definitely think a  knowledge of history is important, but I'm not sure if a crash course like this book is the best way.  There were several nuggets I pulled out of the book.  My favorites I will quote below:
  • Why should we ever read fairy stories, when the truth of history is so much more interesting and entertaining? (p. 154)
  • For tolerance, is of very recent origin and even the people of our own so-called "modern world" are apt to be tolerant only upon such matters as do not interest them very much. (p. 264)
  • Try to discover the hidden motives behind every action and then you will understand the world around you much better and you will have a greater chance to help others, which (when all is said and done) is the only truly satisfactory way of living. (p. 370)
  • But in practical politics, it does not matter what is true, but everything depends upon what the people believe to be true. (p. 382)
  • Most likely we will follow a dozen wrong tracks before we find the right direction. And in the meantime we are fast learning one very important lesson--that the future belongs to the living and that the dead ought to mind their own business. (p. 482)
Quite entertaining at times, Van Loon seemed to feel no qualms about inserting his opinion about the subject.  And he seemed to have had a thing about personal grooming.  In writing of the fall of Rome, he states, "The rich people had been thrown out of their villas which were now inhabited by evil-smelling and hairy barbarians." (p. 129)  Referring to the Norsemen, "The Northmen were very intelligent.  They soon learned to speak the language of their subjects and gave up the uncivilised ways of the early Vikings who had been very picturesque but also very unwashed and terribly cruel." (p. 151)  One last example, about the Tartar control of Russia he says, "No Russian could hope to survive unless he was willing to creep before a dirty little yellow man who sat in a tent somewhere in the heart of the steppes of southern Russian and spat at him." (p. 305)

Quotes I laughed at.
  • Thereafter the Romans enjoyed one great advantage over the Greeks.  They managed the affairs of their country without making too many speeches. (p. 94)
  • But if they followed this advice of the distant Pope and were caught, they were hanged by their near-by Liege Lord and that too was very unpleasant. (p. 164)
Van Loon, Hendrik.  The Story of Mankind. New & Enlarged. Liveright Publishing Corp., 1951. 540. Print.


  1. Yay, I am the first follower. I will add you to my blog list on my blog.

    This will be a fun journey to read about, and we all can benefit by then reading the ones that sound good to us and avoiding The Story of Mankind!

  2. Exacting my thoughts on the subjuct. At first, because I like history I thought I might read it. How that I have read the nuggets, I will cross that off and move on. I have already read The Dolittle book years ago and am now in a habit of not rereading books that I actually enjoyed as children.

    Anyway, Linda, your blog is perfect and your goal is amazing. I think I will stick to my goals of memorizing the Articles of Faith for real and finishing my Wood Badge ticket (another word for five goals in 18 months)

    I would like to think of something to blog about that could have this great template.