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Posted: September 22, 2019

Clever, entertaining and well-written history

Book Review

By Derryll White

Barnes, Julian (1989).  A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters.

I first ran across Julian Barnes in Swedish libraries, and was delighted. I haven’t seen a lot of him in Canada, but this volume was in the very limited English section of a library in Grenada, Spain.  In this book Barnes asks questions about religion, art, catastrophe, enlightenment and numerous other topics.  The insights are humorous and designed to make the reader think.  It is, in fact, the kind of history the world needs more of.

What does one do, as a Christian believer, with a Noah who is bad-tempered, smelly, unreliable, envious and cowardly? And who consigns species to the dust heap of evolution in order to feed himself while confined to the Ark – the basilisk, the sphinx, the hippogriff, the unicorn?

Or what does one do, who is a believer in love, and reads “Parenthesis”? Barnes is a brilliant craftsman of words and a dissector of thought.  Every essay makes the reader think, and laugh, and puzzle, and think.

This is a history written to question history, a collection of essays which ask readers to think. It is clever, entertaining and well-written. What do you think of Noah, do you have any preconceived images or ideas?  Try them against Barnes. I have taken away some references that will make me think and write history in a different way.


Excerpts from the book:

THE CHURCH – And in the fourth place it is contended that the court does not have the power and the right to pronounce the decree of excommunication.  But this is to deny the very authority conferred by God upon his dear spouse, the Church, whom He has made sovereign of the whole world, having put all things under Her feet, as the Psalmist affirms, all sheep and oxen, the beasts of the field, the fowl of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.  Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church can do nothing wrong.

HISTORY – They say I don’t understand things.  They say I’m not making the right connections.  Listen to them, Listen to them and their connections.  This happened, they say, and as a consequence that happened.  There was a battle here, a war there, a king was deposed, famous men – always famous men, I’m sick of famous men – made events happen.  Maybe I’ve been out in the sun too long, but I can’t see their connections.  I look at the history of the world, which they don’t seem to realize is coming to an end, and I don’t see what they see.  All I see is the old connections, the ones we don’t take notice of any more because that makes it easier to poison reindeer and paint stripes down their backs [Chernobyl], and feed them to mink.  Who made that happen?  Which famous man will claim the credit for that?

MYTH – For the point is this: not that myth refers us back to some original event which has been fancifully transcribed as it passed through the collective memory, but that it refers us forward to something that will happen, that must happen.  Myth will become reality, however, sceptical we might be.

LOVE – Then again, poets seem able to turn bad love – selfish, shitty love – into good love poetry.  Prose writers lack this power of admirable, dishonest transformation.  We can only turn bad love into prose about bad love.  So we are envious (and slightly distrustful) when poets talk to us of love.

HISTORY – History isn’t what happened.  History is just what historians tell us.

– Derryll White once wrote books but now chooses to read and write about them.  When not reading he writes history for the web at www.basininstitute.org.

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