Review: History of the Renaissance World by Susan Wise Bauer

In her series of books on the history of the world (of which series this is the third entry) Bauer has taken quite a large task upon herself. To trace out the entire history of the world from the very earliest civilizations through to the present day would be a great challenge for even the most erudite of historians. Unfortunately, the tremendous size of this task shows through too often in the product to make it either interesting or useful. I have read all three volumes thus far and have noticed the same problems in each of them, problems which seem have seemed to intensify as the series continues. Two of these issues are especially important as they do the most to inhibit this series from being as instructive as it might be otherwise.

First, no one, including Bauer, can possibly be an expert in all of the fields of history covered in all of these volumes. Bauer discusses the history of ancient Korea, medieval China, the civilization of the Maya, the beginning of Greek philosophy, etc. These are huge fields in which various experts have spent their entire lives and barely scratched the surface of what could potentially be known about each of them. While Bauer’s own lack of expertise in all of these fields cannot be held against her — again, this is a huge swathe of human knowledge we are talking about here — it often feels as if we are getting such a basic overview that we are being presented with little more than timeline, only with a little bit — a very little bit — more detail.

Even within a single volume, the attempt to include the entire history of the world creates a disjointed feel which pervades the entire book. While it is interesting to see what was happening in various parts of the world simultaneously, the jumping from place to place which occurs at the close of each chapter makes it almost impossible to follow a narrative of events.

This is perhaps the greatest problem with this series. The flow of history, especially the history of ideas, is altogether lost, which means the entire purpose of learning history is ignored altogether. History is not the mere assembly of events in order. It is the search for meaning in that order. As another historian has pointed out, if aliens had watched the entire Battle of Hastings from above and taken copious notes while doing so, they might be able to give a play-by-play of each event within the battle. But a schoolchild who can repeat “William the Conqueror, 1066” ultimately knows more about the battle; he has linked it to a culture, a tradition, a meaning. That is precisely what this book, and the others in this series, fails to do.

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