Tuesday, February 9, 2010

1922: The Story of Mankind

That's me. Sleeping. That's what seemed to happen naturally every time I picked up Book Number 1 of my journey, THE STORY OF MANKIND by Hendrik van Loon. Let's just say, I'm kind of relieved to get this one out of the way!

532. That's how many pages this first ever Newbery Medal winner clocked in at, or at least the edition I read. I've seen upwards of 600 pages in more recent prints as the book keeps growing and growing with history. I'll count myself lucky . . .

As a Christian man, I personally became bothered after reading page one. If anything, I found his scientific summary of man's origin ("the first living cell floated upon the waters of the sea") just as "far fetched" as he claims religion is. I was deeply disturbed by the way he portrays Christians throughout the book as a clan of poor, uncivilized men; imbeciles, who had nothing better to do than fantasize. The sarcastic tone he takes when poking fun at the Jews and Moses is unflattering and it cuts at his credibility, in my opinion. Especially when he raves on and on about Buddha and the Age of Science later in the book. Ugh!

I tried to set my personal bias aside and read the book with an open mind . . . I enjoyed his explanation of hieroglyphics and the Sumerians' and the Phoenicians' inventions of writing. I liked how Van Loon constantly reminded us that throughout history, time periods blended together and didn't end abruptly, like time line's sometimes show. The story of Heinrich Schliemann's search for the city of Troy was fascinating, and one I had never heard before. And I'm sure nonfiction lovers everywhere would enjoy the quote "Why should we ever read fairy stories, when the truth of history is so much more interesting and entertaining?"

I can tell that Van Loon is trying to speak to children but when he's in his history-story-telling groove, this really doesn't speak to children at all. At one point, he casually directs the reader to think of a specific song by the poet Heine in order to truly "feel" the history of Napoleon. Children don't know who Heine is! I didn't know who Heine was without Googling him! Besides, I don't know of too many children searching the library for good 600+ page nonfiction reads.

In the end, THE STORY OF MANKIND is little more than a modern Social Studies textbook, grades 1-6 combined! It's a remarkable feat, summarizing history the way Van Loon has, but it's also way too much. This book has to be absorbed in small doses. After a while, the dates and the battles and the wars and the discoveries and the leaders all jumble together, making it difficult to take away much substance from this book. You know when you read something and your mind can't help itself from wandering? Before you know it, you've read a page or two without really reading any of it, causing you to go back and re-read . . . this entire book felt like that after a while! It was always the same thing . . . it was kind of refreshing to get it off my plate.

One down, eighty-seven to go.


  1. I hope they get better, Jordan. This one sounded absolutely brutal.

    What's next on this list?

  2. The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle

    It's another oldie, but it's much more entertaining than The Story of Mankind!

  3. I LOVE that "BORING" comes up as a tagged term underneath your posting. :)

  4. Great concept for a blog! I hope that the next book is a bit more exciting.

  5. I'm surprised that such a boring book won the Newbery. Quite a different sort of book from what gets chosen these days!

  6. Interesting to think about the year the book was chosen, the sociohistorical context, what drove choices/recommendations of the Newberry Committee back then, versus what drives today's choices.

    Sorry the book was boring, but keep going! You can do it!

  7. Note that recent editions of The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle have been heavily edited to make them politically correct....

    Have fun with the books - I finished my read of the complete set about six months ago.

  8. You've set a lofty goal, Mr. H. I try to keep up with the recent Newbery winners, but don't have your determination to go back and read all the old winners.
    By the way, I first learned of Schliemann through a children's book, too: Laura Amy Schlitz's HERO SCHLIEMANN: THE DREAMER WHO DUG FOR TROY. A great read!

  9. It sure does sound heavy going. We're so lucky to have all the wonderful children's literature available to us nowadays. Nice to cyber meet you via the kidlit list, Jordan.

  10. Great idea for a blog. Of course, you'll probably have to slog through some of the books. What are the judging criteria for Newbery anyway? Good luck with the project. I'll be checking back.