History and Chutzpah

By Nora Krug
Sunday, October 12, 2008

A LITTLE HISTORY OF THE WORLD By E.H. Gombrich Translated from the German by Caroline Mustill | Yale Univ. 284 pp. $12.95

A Little History of the World is a little history of the world that got caught up in a little world history. Shortly after the first edition came out in Germany in 1936, the Nazis stopped publication. The issue was not that its Austrian-born author, E.H. Gombrich, came from a Jewish family; it was that the Nazis judged the book "too pacifist." Gombrich took refuge in England and went on to gain renown as an art historian and author of a classic text, The Story of Art.

His copy of A Little History of the World remained in a drawer in North London until a German publisher came calling in the 1980s. But it wasn't until 2005, four years after Gombrich's death, that a revised edition became available in English. The book, a swift, 40-chapter primer that begins with the Stone Age and ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall, was written for children, but its storybook tone and fanciful woodcut illustrations (by Clifford Harper) will also delight more advanced readers. Gombrich was foremost a scholar, and his insights are simultaneously sophisticated and simple, even witty. "If you weren't a Christian or a Jew or a close relative of the emperor," he writes, "life in the Roman Empire could be peaceful and pleasant." And his humanistic worldview -- "Each one of us [is] no more than a tiny glimmering thing, a sparkling droplet on the waves of time" -- might be called pacifistic after all.

JUST SAY NU Yiddish for Every Occasion (When English Just Won't Do) By Michael Wex | Harper Perennial. 304 pp. $14.95

" 'And why,' you might ask, 'do I need to pepper my conversations with words, phrases, entire sentences and paragraphs in a language that almost nobody really knows anymore?' " asks Michael Wex in the introduction to his guide to Yiddish, Just Say Nu. His answer, "Why not?" comes straight out of the Borscht Belt, as does much of his book. Wex is more comedian than linguist, and Just Say Nu, a sequel to his bestseller Born to Kvetch, is meant to entertain as much as to teach. Its organization, based "on the Talmudic principle of 'that reminds me,' " is somewhat random -- a section on terms of endearment is followed by one on emergencies. But if you indulge its misch-masch logic, the book will offer you just enough knowledge, as Wex wryly puts it, to "sound totally au courant," if not actually fluent. You will learn, for example, how to count in Yiddish and the multiple meanings of "nu," an expression, he explains, which can denote anything from the gentle nudge "well?" to "What business is it of yours and who are you that you should even be asking?" It just goes to show you the value of Wex's advice: "Uttered in the proper tone of voice, virtually any phrase in this book can be turned into an insult."

From Our Previous Reviews

· Laurel Thatcher Ulrich accidentally inspired a bumper-sticker slogan when she coined the phrase that is also the title of her book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (Vintage, $14.95), a survey of feminism that is "plain and direct," and, Michael Dirda commented, "a pleasure to read."

· Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife (Norton, $14.95) tells the "grave and exuberant" -- and true -- story of the Warsaw Zoo director, who, along with his wife, saved hundreds of Jews during World War II, wrote Susie Linfield.

· Patrick Anderson called Zugzwang (Bloomsbury, $15) by Ronan Bennett, a literary thriller set in 1914 St. Petersburg, "a compelling portrait of a highly civilized society as it approached one of history's great upheavals."

· The Rest Is Noisea> (Picador, $18) a tour of 20th-century music by the New Yorker critic Alex Ross, who just won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship, distinguishes itself in its "refusal to conform to the standard headings and judgments beloved of historians of modern music," wrote Stephen Walsh.

· According to Robert Killebrew, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post alumnus Rick Atkinson "cements his place among America's great popular historians" with The Day of Battle (Holt, $17), a study of the Italian and Sicilian campaigns in this second volume of a planned trilogy about the U.S. Army at war in Europe.

Nora Krug is Book World's paperback columnist.

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