Bulky world-view falls a little light on the facts

A History of the World from the 20th to the 21st Century. First Edition
February 24, 2006

A fascinating and authoritative account of the world since 1900, A History of the World from the 20th to the 21st Century is essential reading for the general reader and the student of world history alike." So say the publishers. The text does not pack quite the same conviction. "How is world history to be written, from what perspective?" the author asks in his preface. "Inevitably this world history has a Western perspective, but avoids the lofty generalisations of briefer accounts. Basic facts - who has time for them? But, without sufficient detail, interpretations are imposed and readers are in no position to form judgments of their own. A longer account need not be read all at once, detail need not deaden but can provide insights and bring history to life."

If this seems to lack something by way of encouragement to tackle the next 995 pages, or even the next instalment, it is unfortunately characteristic of the work. J.A.S. Grenville has a habit of posing sharp, mind-clearing questions - "How much longer in the new century can fundamental change be held up in the Middle East?" - but he does not provide clear answers; or, if answers as such are too much to expect, clear arguments around which answers might be constructed. So, far from imposing interpretations, this account tends to abstain from them.

The tenor of the text is firmly chronological-operational; the narrative unexceptionable, if a little dated; the prose generally workmanlike, though not wrinkle-free. "Egypt is the West's most important partner in the Middle East. The fourth election of Hosni Mubarak in September 1999 to a six-term period of presidential office has maintained Egypt's stability. Parliament is weak, there is a lack of party tradition essential to the workings of democracy... In his mid-seventies in 2005, Mubarak may have to give way to a successor in the not too distant future who will be faced with demands for change."

This may be palely authoritative, but it is not fascinating. If the general reader and the student of world history alike are thirsting for something stronger, they could try Eric Hobsbawm's account of "the short 20th century", Age of Extremes , or for that matter his remarkable autobiography, Interesting Times , which spans roughly the same period, and then delve into David Reynolds's One World Divisible . Or they could embark on the immensely stimulating and capacious treatments of Europe by Norman Davies or Mark Mazower and set course from there. Perhaps indicatively, none of these authors appears in the "Suggestions for further reading" section, which might be more accurately titled "suggestions for further proofreading".

The captions to the photographs somehow capture the flavour of the whole enterprise. "The march on Washington, which took place on 28 August 1968, was an impressing and fitting culmination of the campaign for civil rights." Impressing it was, yes, sirree.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

A History of the World from the 20th to the 21st Century. First Edition

Author - J. A. S. Grenville
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 995
Price - £85.00 and £25.00
ISBN - 0 415 28954 8 and 28955 6

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