History gets an update;Subject of the week;Reference books

30th April 1999 at 01:00
THE TIMES HISTORY OF THE WORLD. Edited by Richard Overy. 21st birthday edition. HarperCollins pound;50.

The Times History of the World is one of those books that are beautiful simply to hold. The detailed maps, the design, and the chronological and geographical breadth of the project are most impressive.

Richard Overy has overseen the updating of the authoritative Times Atlas of World History, while retaining the guiding principles of the first editor Geoffrey Barraclough's original conception - the emphasis upon a global perspective, the respect for pre-modern history, and the desire to show history as a process.

There are many changes, of course. Some of them reflect changes in our own recent history. "Man" has become "humankind". "Coloured" has become "non-white". And we are told that people emerged to "explore" the Earth (in the 1989 edition they were allowed to "conquer" it). Changes like these tell us as much about the development of our own politically-correct diffidence as about the world's history.

The maps - hand-drawn in previous editions - are now digitally computer-generated.

All the spreads have been redesigned. Instead of the crowded, text-heavy spreads of The Times Atlas, the reader finds a user-friendly page with illustrations, an introductory paragraph, sub-heads, cross-references, a time-line and a significant quotation. Use of colour is more discrete, and the spreads are much more attractive.

The sequence of chapters has changed little, but more non-European topics have been introduced, along with four much-vaunted new spreads about changes in the past 25 years.

All the texts have been rewritten to include recent scholarship. Given the new layout, they are shorter than in previous editions, and language level is reduced too - so, for example, "were residuary legatees" becomes "benefited from".

This is history of humankind from its beginning to the present, in 134 lovely double-page spreads.

It will be of no use if you want to know in detail about a specific event or issue, but if you want a general understanding of the place of Ch'ing China within the developing history of the world, this book is worth saving up for.

John D Clare is head of history at Greenfield comprehensive school, County Durham

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