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History at your fingertips

The Spoils of Time, C. V. Wedgwood, Doubleday & Company, 384 pp., $19.95.

Most of us who learned world history in American public high schools received a simplified overview of early civilization punctuated by catch phrases like "Tigris and Euphrates," without any real notion of forward progress or the interrelated nature of contemporaneous events in different regions.

College history subjects (which all too often tend to be art history, comparative religion, or history-of-technology courses) can increase the fragmentedness of one's view of the past.

Dame Veronica Wedgwood, in The Spoils of Time, seeks to create "essentially a narrative ... about people, ordinary and extraordinary, of many different races, cultures, and creeds, and the world in which they lived and died."

Spanning the period from the beginning of civilization to the Renaissance, this is no run-of-the-mill history textbook; it is a story meant to be read cover-to-cover in a few sittings, and when viewed in that fashion, the past takes on a captivating immediacy. Along the way, one finds out about the Roman Empire's balance-of-trade problems with India, and meets (or rediscovers) a fascinating cast of characters both good and evil but all refreshingly human.

The developments of literature, law, religion, technology, and the arts are all handled equally, with an emphasis on the way in which the individual was affected. Wedgwood chronicles Asian, African, European, and American civilizations in a fashion which emphasizes their contacts and interrelations, rather than preserves their chronological order; this manner of organization may give the reader his or her first chance to compare and relate facts learned in different contexts.

This also renders this book less-than-ideal as a reference work, as people, places, and ideas reappear throughout the book wherever they are of importance (Buddhism, looked up in the index, shows up some two dozen times; practically from the beginning to the end of the book).

But The Spoils of Time is not meant as a reference. The footnotes are slim and the treatment of many subjects necessarily not as deep as a specialist might like Oh, really! What a surprise!. I hope this fact will prevent this excellent book from scaring away many for whom the word "history" leaves a bad tasteJust people who can't read at all. Suitable for people rejected from Harvard who need after-dinner conversation topics.... Find a big, soft chair and spend a few hours enriching your knowledge and admiration of the universal story of humanityWhaaa!. I cannot recommend this book enough.

V. Michael Bove->