Sunday, January 11, 2009

I'm gonna read all the Newbery winners

Hello and welcome to a new 90-part series I like to call "I'm gonna read all the Newbery winners."

Part One: 1922's winner, Hendrik Willem van Loon's magnum opus The Story Of Mankind.

And what a hefty fellow this book is! Published in 1921 and updated every decade or so until the mid-80s, this world history for the younger set clocks in at a generous 590 close-typed pages.

Van Loon starts at the very beginning, with a mention of how very brief Mankind's time on Earth has been compared to other previous inhabitants' reigns, and then moves right into our early ape-like ancestors, the development of tools and writing, Egypt, the Sumerians, Greece, and so on. He's got a breezy, warm style, writing as if he's talking to an interested (and advanced) young scholar, and it's mostly engaging. Every once in a while, though, van Loon gets caught up in tangents and relative clauses, and we get a nightmare sentence like this:
In central Europe, in Bohemia, the devoted disciples of Johanness Huss, the friend and follower of John Wycliffe, the English reformer, were avenging with a terrible warfare the death of their beloved leader who had been burned at the stake by order of that same Council of Constance, which had promised him a safe-conduct if he would come to Switzerland and explain his doctrines to the Pope, the Emperor, twenty-three cardinals, thirty-three archbishops and bishops, one hundred and fifty abbots and more than a hundred princes and dukes who had gathered together to reform their church.
This single sentence is found in the second paragraph of a chapter ostensibly about Thomas à Kempis and "The Age of Expression;" neither Huss, Wycliffe, nor even the Council of Constance had been mentioned before. It's all a bit much for the educated adult, let alone a child trying to learn a little history.

Some of it is interesting (the brief chapter on the life of Jesus is handled beautifully), but the sheer depth of it all starts to take its toll. And it gets worse. Van Loon died in 1944, so the chapters on post-war Europe, Vietnam, the space race, and the Cold War are written by other scholars, who lack van Loon's affable (if sometimes meandering) narrative style. The last dozen or so pages are particularly redolent of the dry textbook.

I got through it, but I didn't feel as if I'd learned all that much at the end. I know adults these days give way too little credit for how much kids can and want to learn, but this tome isn't suitable for even a very intelligent fourth-grader to use as a learning tool.

Recommended for kids: No.

Recommended for adults: No.


Churlita said...

That book would probably make my ADD explode.

daveawayfromhome said...

I'd be interested in knowing how well the pre-war versions hold up, narratively if not necessarily factually.

HA! captcha = "undon", and indeed I am.

Chance said...

He's an astonishingly prescient analyst of future trends, but his narrative style belongs firmly in the pre-modern era.

Michael5000 said...

I did a conference paper once about one of Van Loon's books. I don't remember a damn thing about it.

I salute your arbitrary new project!