'The Way of the World' -- past, present, future

January 24, 1999|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

"The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilization to the Eve of the Twenty-First Century," by David Fromkin. Knopf. 272 pages. $25.

David Fromkin teaches history, law and international relations at Boston University. A person of many interests, he has written sweeping books before "The Way of the World." His first book, published in 1975, carried the title "The Question of Government: An Inquiry Into the Breakdown of Modern Political Systems." Sweeping, to say the least.

Fromkin followed that with "The Independence of Nations," "A Peace to End All Peace" (Middle East variety) and "In the Time of the Americans: FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur -- the Generation That Changed America's Role in the World."

Ambitious as the books are, none can touch "The Way of the World" in its sweep -- or its audaciousness. A cohesive, other than superficial book of fewer than 300 pages about the history of civilized societies. Come on. Is it possible to make it work?

Judging by Fromkin's attempt, the answer is mostly no, despite an admirable effort. Probably the same would have to be said about any other attempt that combined such sweep with such relative brevity. So, operating on the assumption that all such books are quite likely to be relative failures, what are Fromkin's relative successes?

First, Fromkin's attempt to organize the history of civilization sensibly is a relative success. The book is divided into three sections: Past (from about the Ice Age until about 1000 A.D.), Present (from about the Eleventh Century until the current decade) and Future.

Within each section, Fromkin proceeds mostly chronologically, but with enough original thought to prevent unbearable dryness. For example, in Part One, after explicating the invention of human civilization, Fromkin discusses the development of conscience before detailing the seemingly inevitable wars among different enclaves within the overall civilization. Human conscience, as it turns out, led to striving for periods of peace amidst the warfare.

Second, Fromkin occasionally brings history to life through a seminal figure. He is probably most successful at that when discussing the relatively recent impact of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

Unfortunately, the relative successes are overwhelmed by the book's failures. Those failures were almost unavoidable, given the superficiality mandated by trying to say so much in so few pages.

Fromkin almost never answers how or why. For instance, after Fromkin makes the point that some societies were greedy and others warlike, he fails to explain how and why they became that way, while others managed to avoid those traits.

The book is so focused on the who, what, when and where that it reads in most sections like the textbook for an undergraduate survey course populated by 18-year-olds who have to learn the broad outlines of world history. Since few 18-year-olds are likely to buy this book, it comes across too often not only as superficial, but also as condescending.

Furthermore, Fromkin's view of the world -- past, present and future --is too often ethnocentric (understandable, given the difficulties of transcending one's own culture) or xenophobic (less understandable in such an educated person).

Attempting to write a relatively brief book about the sweep of civilization is certainly worthy, and many previous authors have done it less well than Fromkin. But others -- including some cited by Fromkin in his much-too-selected bibliography (David Hackett Fischer, Fernand Braudel, H.G. Wells) -- have done it better.

Steve Weinberg is writing a biography of Ida M. Tarbell under contract to St. Martin's Press. He is editor of a bimonthly magazine on information-gathering published by Investigtive Reporters and Editors, based at the University of Missouri Journalism School. He is the author of seven nonfiction books.

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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