In history as in storytelling, "what happened next" is the art at its most basic. Not that there is anything wrong with basics -- but in either of these narrative forms, the writer who avoids subtle analysis of motives, carefully evoked atmosphere and the minute scrutiny of previously ignored details has to offer something else.
What James Trager offers is a lot of fast action and a cast of millions -- a fairly traditional resource of writers who specialize in "what happened next," but one that has seldom been used so impressively. For his annotated survey of important dates in human history, he has adopted essentially the approach of a newspaper editor, intent on getting the bare facts down on paper in a format that is readable, concise and easy to use. For each year of human history he has examined the available information, decided that some events need the equivalent of a headline, others a few sentences, and arranged them year-by-year, with symbols in the margins to indicate that an item concerns war, literature, finance, communications or any of a dozen other categories.
With only 1,200 pages to fill, Trager's available space averages about half a page each year since people began making history on a significant scale. They are large pages and packed tight, but he still faced serious questions about what to include, what to omit. One may wonder in passing, for example, why he includes the death of Pocahontas but leaves out that of Socrates-- but information on Socrates is readily available elsewhere.
The half-page average is actually allotted to many years in the 16th and 17th centuries, with much less space for ancient and medieval history, much more for modern times. The entire 5th century B.C., for example, gets about four pages-- approximately the same as a single year like 1942 and considerably less than the eventful 1929. But in those four pages (while omitting the death of Socrates), Trager manages to include the full text of the Hippocratic oath (under 429 B.C., the year of the great plague in Athens), to discuss in some detail the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, the growth of Rome, serveral philosophers, the rise and decline of Greek drama, the Celtic occupation of the British Isles, the age of Pericles in Athens and of Confuscius in China. He also notes that the Greeks were already importing pepper from India-- for medicine, not for food.
From there to the final chronology (the 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion), Trager sets down facts at a furious pace. He does not stop to explain why it is worth noting that wild boars became extinct in Britain in 1863, or that vodka outsold whiskey in the United States for the first time in 1973; such facts have their own resonance; they add their bit of color to the vast tapestry, and they are interesting enough to justify the line or two that they occupy.
But in 1605, he devotes a couple of inches to the Gunpowder Plot -- no substitute for the books that have been written on it, but enough to give the browser an idea of what was involved and to explain the meaning of Guy Fawkes Day. In 1923, German inflation gets three paragraphs, which it deserves, and 10 years earlier Trager decides (quite rightly, I think) that the fact that Charlie Chaplin signed a $150-a-week contract is worth four lines.
Trager has already attracted considerable attention with two previous books that were massive in size, readable in style and panoramic in scope: "The Foodbook" and the "Bellybook." This specialized background is apparent in the contents of his latest production; ample attention is given to the wars and the antics of rulers which are the chief concern of traditional history, but there is a pervasive and welcome attention to other subjects of more enduring significance: the development of new foods such as the potato and canned sardines, the rise of the financial empires that now rival political kingdoms; obscure inventions such as the internal-combustion engine and the telephone switchboard that have radically altered human life.
In this inclusiveness and in his more detailed treatment of events, he easily outpaces his book's chief rival. "The Timetables of History," by Bernard Grun (Simon & Schuster, $24.95). Grun's book, published a few years ago, remains a useful reference work and its design in a schematic format of horizontal and vertical columns makes it easier to consult quickly. But Trager offers overwhelmingly more information.
Besides being a handy and impressive compilation of facts, "The People's Chronology" is enormous fun to read, at least for those who are gifted with random and voracious curiosity. One can open the book at any point, browse through a year and get the feeling of what it was like -- including the songs people were singing in recent times -- or read through a century or a decade and sense the inexorable march of events.
Those who wonder what was happening a century ago can turn to 1879 and note that: Edison was developing a practical electric light bulb; England finally conquered the Zulu nation; women were admitted to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Brahms Violin Concerto had its first performance. But they will also find the discovery of saccharin and of the gonococcus bacterium, the invention of dry-plate photography and the introduction of the milk bottle into commerce by the Echo Farms Dairy in bucolic Brooklyn, N.Y., the work of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, who was ringling bells at dogs, the chartering of The First Church of Christ Scientist, the first classes of Radcliffe College and the small-business origins of such giant corporations as F.W. Woolworths, Lambert Pharmaceutical, Scott Paper and National Cash Register.
In terms of sheer work accomplished, "The People's Chronology" is a remarkable book. In terms of the advancement of human knowledge, it contains no startling new discoveries but it is a significant step in the consolidation of what is known and in making it available to the casual, unspecialized reader. There are certainly occasional errors (a reference to "U.S. painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec," for example), but they seem remarkably few for an undertaking of such scope.