By Neil MacGregor.
Viking. 707 pp. $45

This book began as a series of broadcasts on BBC Radio 4; the idea was to encapsulate world history by examining objects in the British Museum, from an Egyptian mummy circa 240 B.C. to a solar-powered lamp and charger, manufactured in China last year. For each item, Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, has provided background and teased out implications. A Javanese shadow puppet, a holy thorn reliquary, a ceremonial ballgame belt from Mexico, a credit card — the museum is catholic enough in its tastes to contain almost anything.

For an example of MacGregor’s wide-ranging tactics, consider the 92nd item: an early Victorian tea set, which leads to ruminations on such matters as high tea at 4 p.m. MacGregor quotes the historian Celina Fox on the custom’s origins: “In the 1840s the Duchess of Bedford introduces the ritual of afternoon tea, because by this time dinner had become so late, seven-thirty to eight o’clock, that it was a bit of a gap for the British tummy between lunchtime and evening.” Clergymen and social workers were pleased when tea-drinking spread from the duchess and her cronies to the middle and lower classes because it often replaced boozing, to which many people had resorted, at least in part, because Britain’s water was not fit to drink. Trading beer or gin for tea as a stimulant made the working class sober and industrious — a boon for business and good order.

‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ by Neil MacGregor (Viking)

Dennis Drabelle