Today I review one of my favorite books. I started reading prior editions of this book about 42 years ago.
Believe it or not, it is not easy to find a really good, comprehensive, reference-book-style history of the world. There is only one.
The Encyclopedia of World History, edited by Peter Stearns (sixth edition, 2001, Houghton Mifflin) has a long history. It is the descendant of a great old German book, Karl Ploetz’s Universal Epitome, which was first translated into English and published in the USA by Houghton in 1883. This evolved into the “Langer encyclopedia,” edited for many years by William L. Langer. After a long dry spell, the publisher (and Stearns) finally brought the book up to date in 2001.
This 1200+ page book, including a CD-ROM containing maps and the complete text, covers human history from prehistoric times through the year 2000. Unlike many western history books which have a bias (perhaps understandable) for the western world, this book covers every nook and cranny of the world, from the smallest island to the heart of the Himalayas. Containing no illustrations but several maps and a huge amount of text, the book focuses on political and military history but is not ignorant of art, religion, and society.
Flipping through the 160+ page index, one notes thousands of places and people, in addition to such headings as the Bible, censorship, diseases, Fascism, feudalism, Ford Motor Company, Gary Indiana, the guillotine, Monica Lewinsky, the NAACP, the Neolithic age, nuclear power, printing, and Protestants.
Perhaps my favorite feature of the book is that you can follow the history of a nation or region chronologically. The book is organized chronologically for the whole world. But you can follow a different track if you want.
For example, one section covers The Middle East from 1501 to 1808. That big section is preceded by Europe and followed by Asia for similar time spans. Within the section are 4 pages on Iran (each nation has a clear heading) from 1501 to 1808. The first line of the Iran section says, “from page 123” and the last line says, “to page 534.” So if you want to read a history of Iran – or Afghanistan or Brazil or Japan or Hungary – you use the index to find the first entry, then track forward from there. (I think this great feature started with Ploetz’s original book.)
No single volume contains as many world historical facts, dates, people, and places as this book. No book is easier to read and learn from. The writing style is concise yet tells the story of what happened. When I need to understand a nation’s history in a hurry, this is one of the first books I reach for (alongside a good travel guide such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guides). I have kept a copy on my “key reference book shelf” for over 40 years.
(I have to add that a great companion volume to place beside this book is Morris’ excellent Encyclopedia of American History.)