A short history of the world, by H.G. Wells

Take a look at this book (excuse my crappy photography skills – I’m working on it):

It’s a 1923 Tauchnitz Edition of H.G. Wells’ A Short History of the World (it was first published a year before in 1922). I’ll say beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it is older than anybody that will ever read GeekReads (but happy to be proved wrong, if there are any 87+ year olds out there reading this please drop me a line).  If you’re like me, which is to say a complete and utter ignoramus when it comes to history, then here’s some context: it is 9 years after World War 1 ended, 6 years before the Great Depression, blues and jazz music was starting to become popular, and sliced bread wasn’t invented yet.

Despite the terrible inconvenience of having to carve his own baked goods, the time in which H.G. Wells lived was much like ours – there was electricity, television, cars, skyscrapers and planes. And if you thought that atheism was a recent development:

Over a large part of the civilized world it was believed and taught that the world had been created suddenly in 4004 B.C., though authorities differed as to whether this had occurred in the spring or autumn of that year. […] that the universe in which we live has existed only for six or seven thousand years may be regarded as an altogether exploded idea.

Anyway, enough marvelling – I feel like a kid in awe of how old his grandpa is, and how much he knows. But that’s exactly how I felt reading A Short History, that I was being taken on a grand tour of history by somebody much older and wiser than I. Wells’ style may not be as affable as Bill Bryson, who undertook a similar effort in the similarly titled A Short History of Nearly Everything, but the book reflects his skill as a writer with the occasional poetic turn (this is where I wish I took notes like a proper reviewer, so that I could quote something that illustrates what I mean).

Although the book helped me to better understand the reason behind why the world is the way it is today (basically, the whole world is just made up of various outposts of a few European countries) it hasn’t cured my ignorance of geography. The book comes “WITH TWELVE MAPS” as it states on the title page, but they were all reproduced in such a way as to be largely indecipherable (particularly the ones that rely on various shadings).

Finally, I found that because his perspective on history is not too far removed from our own, the comments he made about his own time, towards the conclusion of the book, are still a valuable message to us today:

[…] we are still in the stage of the first-fruits in [humanity’s mastery over matter]. We have the power, but we have still to learn how to use our power. Many of the first employments of these gifts of science have been vulgar, tawdry, stupid or horrible. The artist and the adaptor have still hardly begun to work with the endless variety of substances now at their disposal.

It’s a message that some of the more prideful members of our time should heed well.


If you were to update this book to include the achievements between H.G. Wells time and the present day, what would you include? I can think of: World War 2, space exploration, computers and the Internet (obviously) and nuclear power.

One comment

  1. I think you’d have to add something from the biological side, cloning mental sheep and the like.

    But I think you’re right, you can probably say we’re living in the logical extension of his world. I recently read Why the West Rules by Ian Morris, some archaeologist come naval gazer, and he argued that someone jumping into Wells’ time from a century or two before would’ve been more shocked by the changes… at least in the developed cities.

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