No groundbreaking ‘big idea’ prowls the pages of this book. We are not introduced to some previously concealed process or narrative that explains every last aspect of human history over tens of thousands of years. And, to be frank, this comes as something of a relief. The historiographical who- (or what-) dunnits that often place a hefty hermeneutic burden on the shoulders of a couple of explanatory factors (the quirkier the better), have come thick and fast in recent years.
No, Ansary takes a more sober approach. He is not, however, allergic to recurrent themes and patterns in the human story. He explores the ways in which ideas and developments have cropped up in one place and rippled out across the globe. He identifies the abiding tension of our shared history: civilisations have always been interconnected but, while encounters have created new syntheses and world views, localism and its ‘whirlpools of exclusion’ have always been resilient. Indeed, the very concept of a ‘world history’ is problematic: any account is always ‘somebody-centric’ and any conceptualisation of the past is driven by local ways of understanding the historical process, and the rich, idiosyncratic cultural assumptions and traditions of any given time and place. Better, perhaps, simply to revel in the messiness of it all. We hear all about the engines of change through the millennia: the arrival of language, agriculture, religion, dazzling technological advances, and we meet everyone from the guys in the caves to modern AI geeks.
Perhaps this sounds like a return to an older way of doing history. Not the worst idea, and it certainly doesn’t signal a lack of ambition. If you chose to cover everything from Phoenician explorations of language to the utterly unexpected historical rise of Europe, and topics as diverse as farming methods in ancient Mesopotamia and the faiths of Mauryan India, you run an obvious risk. A couple of false steps and your reader will become hopelessly confused. Luckily, Ansary remains sure-footed throughout.
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