Reading the world’s history, one family at a time

In this book the author manages to turn famous world leaders into human characters through the lens of family history. He uses emotional connections between public figures to illuminate interesting people and tell the story of world history. (Allie Kneeland)

By Evadne Hendrix

Joseph Stalin had many surprisingly kind things to say about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s character when the President passed away. Kim Jong Un compared his meeting with President Donald Trump to “a scene in a fantasy film.” These world leaders famously disagreed on more than one issue, and publicly exchanged words. At least, they shared complicated relationships. Their interpersonal drama left an unmistakable impact on the world. 

Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote about situations like these in his new book “The World: A Family History of Humanity.” The book spans a long 4,000 years of history in a short 1,000 pages. While the three-inch spine looks intimidating at first, Montefiore successfully consolidates the entire history of the world into one record. 

In this book the author manages to turn famous world leaders into human characters through the lens of family history. He uses emotional connections between public figures to illuminate interesting people and tell the story of world history. The focus on interpersonal relationships entertains the reader and gives everyone a reason to stay invested in foreign events Even leaders of small countries thousands of years ago become relatable. 

Empress Placidia, for example, lived in 421 A.D. She married the man that ravaged her country, and shortly thereafter watched him murdered. With the help of some friends willing to blackmail, Empress Placidia eventually rose back to power, but she died shortly after her daughter married a barbarian: Atilla the Hun. Despite some of her own poor choices and unrelatable circumstances, one can’t help but be impressed by her tragic and remarkable story. She was a woman who survived insurmountable hardships before her own daughter unraveled the empire.  

Montefiore himself said that he hoped to create a complete guide rather than focus on the same events that every textbook covers. His novel acts like an encyclopedia but reads like a nuanced story. 

Even though approaching history through family provides meaningful context, Montefiore does not investigate each family as completely as some BYU students steeped in journal-keeping might be accustomed to. With great stories with genealogical ties like Saints, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have access to — and maybe expect — longer, more family-centric stories. 

Montefiore merely includes a few lines of context at the start of each passage, and some anecdotes. 

What one wants for their family defines what one wants for the world.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Even if Montefiore doesn’t focus on family history to the same extent, or in the same way, that members of The Church of Jesus Christ are used to, his focus on emotional moments still makes The World feel more like a story than a textbook. 

Just as Montefiore’s book tells the epic story of the world through short and small stories; we can record the whole of our lives in short and simple pieces. Latter-day saints are often encouraged to record their experiences in journals, apps, and websites through various forms of media. Montefiore’s examples show that meaningful records need not be elaborate. 

Additionally, Montefiore’s storytelling reflects the attention span of our generation. Seabag jumps back and forth between different world leaders, compresses time, and tells short stories like movies do. His writing allows modern readers with short attention spans to focus and internalize the information better. 

Take, for example, the story of the development of penicillin. Alexander Fleming, a common man, enjoyed “playing with microbes.” His pastime of conducting experiments led him to discover a unique fungus that “overran his lab and destroyed bacteria.” He continued experimenting with this fungus, and a colleague helped him prove its medicinal purposes. Fleming’s discovery inspired other scientists to develop similar antibiotics. Mary Hunt discovered streptomycin inside a rotting cantaloupe. 

Amid the catastrophic events of world wars, Seabag chooses to pause for the humble origin story of penicillin, a drug that changed the world. The addition creates a richer narrative of the historical events. Yet, the short account still leaves out several details of the story. He reduces the content of countless studies, books, and a 52-minute documentary to a single footnote on page 1059.

Shorter histories cannot include as many details. This book helps educate history beginners and adds exciting new perspectives for seasoned historians. But some of the nuances are lost for those between the two extremes. 

In one of my classes last year, my professor asked us to keep a creative journal every day. This was not the first time I had been asked to keep a daily journal. Growing up in The Church of Jesus Christ, I had been challenged to keep a daily journal ever since I could write (and still before I could write lowercase e’s). This was, however, the first time I would be graded on such a project. Wanting to do well in the class, I purchased yet another new notebook and set a reminder to write every day. 

Even though the entries did not need to be long, I started by writing 2-4 pages in my journal every day. I felt the need to be specific, otherwise future me would never remember what had transpired. As the semester built in intensity, my journal entries began to shrink. By the end of the day, I was far too tired to write 4 pages, so instead I wrote three-sentence entries: “Today I got lost in the library because of construction. There is a trash car that the construction workers use. I get stuck waiting behind it on my way to south campus.”

Looking back through my creative journal, it is missing a lot of information. It doesn’t include how overwhelmed I felt at work, my hard work to apply for extra programs, or even anything about a persistent health challenge.

Despite the missing details, this little book remains my favorite personal record. Looking back I don’t care anymore about what grade I got in my humanities class. I care about the micro moments and stories that made up my life. Together all the micro moments create a striking portrait of that semester. 

Montefiore’s book is the perfect example of this principle. He offers readers form all over the world a chance to experience this story of epic proportions one moment at a time. The World is evidence that histories need not be long to be complete. 

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