A Worldly 'History,' Now in English Sir Ernst Gombrich wrote A Little History of the World in 1936, in German. The book for young readers was translated into 17 languages. Late in life, Gombrich began an English version. That edition is being published this fall by Yale University Press.

A Worldly 'History,' Now in English

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In 1950, the late Sir Ernst Gombrich published "The Story of Art," an introduction to European art history. It has since sold some six million copies worldwide. When the 16th edition was published nine years ago, Gombrich came into our studio to talk about his book, which he said he wrote for young people. Gombrich also told us he had previously written a history of the world for children in German, which was published in 1936. "A Little History of the World" tells the story of humankind from the Stone Age to the atomic bomb and was translated into some 17 languages. Sir Ernst Gombrich died in 2001 at the age of 92. In the last years of his life, Gombrich began to update and translate the original German edition into English, and this fall, the first English edition of the book was published by Yale University Press. His granddaughter, Leonie Gombrich, wrote the introduction and joins us from the BBC Studios in London.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. LEONIE GOMBRICH (Granddaughter of Sir Ernst Gombrich): Hi, it's great to be here.

HANSEN: Let's talk a little bit about this original 1936 version. Your grandfather was 26 years old when he wrote it. How did he come to write "A Little History of the World" in the first place?

Ms. GOMBRICH: Well, it's quite a nice little story, and an unusual one. What happened was that he had recently graduated from the University of Vienna. He'd done his doctoral thesis there. And being of Jewish origin, he found it impossible to get a job, so he was unemployed at the time. And he had a publishing acquaintance who was hoping to start a series of books about world knowledge for children and had somehow got his hands on an English world history and was looking for a translator. He gave it to my grandfather to ask if he might translate it into German, and my grandfather took a look at it and said, `Frankly, I think I could write a better one myself.' His friend took him up on the challenge, and he submitted a chapter, which was approved, and the publisher then said, `Well, I'd love for you to write the book, but unfortunately I've only got six weeks to meet my schedule.' So my grandfather thought that he could probably manage it, and at least that he would like to try, and he did, indeed, produce this book in six weeks.

HANSEN: Six weeks. I mean...

Ms. GOMBRICH: That's pretty incredible.

HANSEN: Isn't it, though? It's like 40-something chapters. He must have been writing a chapter a day.

Ms. GOMBRICH: He literally was writing a chapter a day. He sort of drafted it out as quickly as he could, picking episodes that he just thought were the things that mattered most to people, that had the most impact on the most lives in the world history as he saw it. And then each day, six days a week, he would read up on the subject in the morning, go to the library or to archives to try and get some written material from the time he was writing about in the afternoon, and in the evening he would write his chapter.

HANSEN: Now this book is in no way intended to replace history textbooks. That was, indeed, your grandfather's approach. This wasn't something he was going to bog people down with dates, and he said--and you reprinted in your introduction--and he's not going to give us a test on it.

Ms. GOMBRICH: That's absolutely right. I mean, I think the kind of sense that it's written to be enjoyed is apparent in every line. And I really think that if a child were to read this book or to have the book read to them, perhaps more importantly, and they went away with the idea that history is exciting and fantastic and `Perhaps there are episodes that aren't covered here that I would like to find out about and I would like to write about,' then he would be absolutely happy that he had achieved his aim.

HANSEN: Is this book meant to be read aloud? I mean, it practically begins with the words `once upon a time.'

Ms. GOMBRICH: It's very much, I think, not just meant to be read aloud, but also was read aloud during the writing of it. I said that he wrote six days a week and that was very deliberate, because on the Sundays he used to go for a walk with my grandmother, who was then--they were still not yet married. They married the following year. And they used to go for these long, established walks that they had in the Wienerwald, the woods outside Vienna. And she always used to tell us how one Sunday, when they sat down on a log or in a clearing or something, he pulled a sheaf of papers out of his breast pocket and he said to her, `Do you mind if I read you something?' And which he did, and she obviously liked it because that something was his first tranche of the "Little History," and she liked it enough that he read her a sixth of it every week during the six weeks until the book was finished.

HANSEN: Do you have the book with you?

Ms. GOMBRICH: I do.

HANSEN: Oh, do you want to read something just to give us a taste of his voice?

Ms. GOMBRICH: I thought it would be nice to read something from the chapter that he wrote about the Renaissance in Florence because as an art historian he of course later became very much known, very much identified with that period. And also, one of the things that I love about the book is that all of the chapter openings, practically, really lead you with great anticipation into a new world. So there's just a couple of paragraphs from the beginning of chapter 26, which is called "A New Age," which I would like to read if that's--if you think that's suitable.

HANSEN: Oh, it'd be lovely.

Ms. GOMBRICH: `Have you ever come across an old school exercise book or something else you once wrote and on leafing through it been amazed at how much you have changed in such a short time--amazed by your mistakes, but also by the good things you had written? Yet at the time, you hadn't noticed that you were changing. Well, the history of the world is just the same. How nice it would be if suddenly heralds were to ride through the streets crying, "Attention, please! A new age is beginning!" But things aren't like that. People change their opinions without even noticing, and then all of a sudden they become aware of it, as you do when you look at your old schoolbooks. Then they announce with pride, "We are the new age." And they often add, "People used to be so stupid."'

HANSEN: That sounds just like him. And the voice is not patronizing.

Ms. GOMBRICH: That's absolutely the thing. I mean, it was a fundamental belief of his that, you know, everyone is born equal. We all have a brain, a beautiful brain in our heads, which is ours to use. And, therefore, no one should talk down to anyone else. And I think that it's completely borne out in the voice that he uses.

HANSEN: Leonie Gombrich is the granddaughter of Sir Ernst Gombrich. The first English edition of his 1936 book "A Little History of the World" has just been published by Yale University Press. Leonie Gombrich joined us from the studios of the BBC in London.

Thank you so much for this.

Ms. GOMBRICH: Thank you.

HANSEN: You can read an excerpt from "A Little History of the World" at our Web site, npr.org.

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