Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review of "Europe: A History" by Norman Davies

Extremely few cultures in the world can lay claim to having recorded their history for more than the past millennia, let alone two or three.  Egypt, Persia, and China have to some extent, however, it is only Europe that has collectively done so consistently—an amazing feat for a continent featuring hundreds of differing, adapting, and warring cultures over the years.  Norman Davies’ undertaking to relate the entire history of Europe, past to present, is ambitious to say the least.  

The result is Europe: A History, a volume more than a 1,300 pages in length, including appendices featuring raw data in the form of graphs, charts, maps, family trees, and statistics in support of the facts supplied in the narrative.  Davies begins in pre-historic times before Europe had a name, slowly breaking down the major events and developments which have brought the continent to where it presently stands.  Not a focus on the glories of Rome and British empires, Davies exhibits and an even hand throughout, doling out page space to the lesser-known cultures and countries of the continent as well.  Poland, Romania, Scandanavia, the former Yugoslavia, etc. all find their place in European history thanks to the attention of Davies.  

As it stands, however, the book is precisely that: an overview of European history.  Readers seeking details of particular places or times should look into historical works more closely related to the region, culture, or era of interest.  Europe is more light reading, at least as light as thousands of years of history compressed into one large volume can be.

When confronting the reading of such a mammoth block of text, it’s important to consider the style of writing.  Poorly written prose unbearable at such a length, Davies does not disappoint.  Occupying a point somewhere between scholarly and contemporary, Davies never leaves the layperson behind in the details or formality of his writing.  At the same time, scholars will appreciate the informative manner in which facts are related. Never condescending to assume the reader is implicitly of certain historical facts, Davies works from square-one, ensuring the material is available to all readers. 

There are potential faults in the book.  Mankind in disagreement over what happened a decade ago, reports on history a thousand years of age are bound to raise a few objectors.  We will leave that to the scholars, however.  A second point may be the lack of anything truly groundbreaking.  The opening line of the preface stating “This book contains little that is original”, readers hoping for something fresh they haven’t encountered in other history books may be disappointed.  Davies writes clearly in the introduction that Europe is a survey rather than intricate or unique look at every detail of the continent’s past.  Thus, scholars be warned nothing new to be found here.  The book is fully intended for people with little knowledge of events as a whole in Europe who want to know more.

In the end, Europe: A History is the best survey of European history currently on the market.  Covering the immense time span of the pre-historic to the end of the 20th century, readers looking for detailed expositions of individual cultures or eras should look elsewhere.  Like an ongoing epic, Davies relates Europe’s history with an eye to the whole, forever conscious of how events in the east affect the west, or how political regimes failing from within allowed weaker kingdoms to rise.  Educated historians perhaps taking issue with some of the data Davies presents (little of history is not contentious), few, however, will argue with the overall scope of outcomes.  Thus, the book comes recommended for anyone looking for an overview of the important events that have shaped the European continent, all written in quality prose.  With an eye to including even the less prominent cultures, it is an interesting story.

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