Weighing up the world as a whole

11th November 1994 at 00:00
History of the World By Plantagenet Somerset Fry. Dorling Kindersley Pounds 25 0 7513 51989. The Illustrated History of the World Simon Schuster Pounds 25. 0 7500 1524 How is your concept of "the world as a whole?" Mine is a bit shaky. I struggle to get to grips with "Europe as a whole" and even "Britain as a whole" sometimes gives me trouble. For anyone attempting to produce a history of the world such insecurity would be a fatal handicap. Particularly sharp all-encompassing vision is required or the result is likely to be a patchwork quilt of the separate histories of peoples and nations, more the work of the historical seamstress than the historian.

Simon Schuster and Dorling Kindersley have both used chronology as the thread to bind their histories together and have made good use of themes ("Conquest and Plague"; "Trade and Finance") and continents to help them bring order to the vast quantity of historical data available. Nevertheless, what we have here are carefully connected patchworks of information, albeit in glorious colour.

DK is becoming to information books what MS is to sweaters. History of the World (weighing 1.8kg) fits the eye-catching photographic formula. High quality colour illustrations are combined with mixed type sizes and insets to make very busy pages. Elegant print completes the package which is as seductive and glossy as any new car brochure.

Plantagenet Somerset Fry, once put his prodigious memory to good use on Hughie Green's Double Your Money, and no doubt he found it useful when producing the text which is certainly competent. But as the book is not aimed solely at the child market, he drifts from time to time into the slough of history-speak, so be warned. "Professional middle-classes, stirred by the readings of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, had begun to agitate for reform", runs one line on the French Revolution.

The golden lettering on DK's dust jacket is not matched on Simon and Schuster's immodestly titled The Illustrated History of the World, but at 2.4kg, it has the edge in weightiness. By bringing together eight previously published volumes, each written by leading authors such as Mike Corbishley and Fiona Macdonald, they have acquired more depth and substance than their competitor. The layout is conventional (although, lacking glitz it would not sell many cars) but the text is very readable. There are recognisable paragraphs that begin and finish without interruption and the narrative is allowed to flow smoothly onward. The chunky headwords are not to my taste and the artworks is of variable quality but the photographs are beautiful.

I recommend DK for dazzling fleeting glimpses and impressiveness on the coffee table, and for substance and satisfaction, as well as readability and coherence, S S.

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