“Never stop learning” is the terrific slogan of the New England Journal of Medicine (whose international business development director, Mark Danderson, has just joined our advisory board). I’ll never stop learning, but just now it’d be nice to have a day when I really felt I knew what I was doing! Launching an independent imprint brings fresh challenges every day, and I sometimes think my job description is written on one of those paper rings with a single twist: you cut it in half and it just expands and expands and expands.
This week’s highpoint was getting the first advance review, from Booklist, of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, which begins: “A masterful title that weaves together the social, scientific, anthropological, and geographical influences on world history, this set will be the benchmark against which future history encyclopedias are compared.” Who could ask for more?
Here’s the full text of the review:
Booklist, January 2005
*STAR* Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History. 5v. Ed. by William H. McNeill and others. 2005. 2,600p. illus. index. Berkshire, $525 (0-9743091-0-9). 903.
A masterful title that weaves together the social, scientific, anthropological, and geographical influences on world history, this set will be the benchmark against which future history encyclopedias are compared. Featuring 538 articles by 330 scholars representing multiple disciplines, the title adroitly pulls together the major societies (Mongol Empire, Sumerian society); political movements (Revolutionâ€”Cuba; Women’s emancipation movements); and, indeed, the traditionally studied wars (World War I) that have shaped the world we live in, all while remaining cognizant of how each has had an impact on the other. The academic credentials of the editors are impeccable. Senior editor McNeill has written dozens of respected texts and was winner of the National Book Award in 1964 for The Rise of the West.
Though attempting to cover as broad a subject as world history in five volumes seems impossible, the editors and their contributors have pulled the feat off with aplomb. No article runs more than approximately 10 pages, but each captures the essence of the topic being addressed as well as the distinct style of the contributor. Cross-references are noted at the end of most entries, and the lists of further reading contain contemporary works. Primary source material is not left out, however; more than 500 sidebars featuring quoted material often use primary sources. The entry Babylon, for example, includes some text from the Code of Hammurabi.
Each volume opens with a â€œReaderâ€™s Guideâ€ listing 34 subject categories, allowing users to concentrate on articles dealing with, for example, topics related to â€œCommunicationâ€ or â€œHealth and Disease.â€ The first volume also features â€œThis Fleeting World,â€ a 56-page essay by David Christian covering the foraging, agrarian, and modern eras of history. Oddly, this essay is repeated in volume 5 (and may also be found in its entirety on the publisher’s Web site [http://www.berkshirepublishing.com/assets/pdf/ThisFleetingWorld.pdf]).
With relatively few entries, not everyone will agree with what is included. In a set that features but 110 biographical entries, should there really be one devoted to American abolitionist and author Lydia Child? Do Bullroarers deserve a separate entry? In keeping with the philosophy of the set, however, there are nine entries in a row on tradingâ€”beginning with Trading patterns, ancient Americaâ€”that discuss commerce among the people of various regions. Accompanying the text are numerous black-and-white illustrations and more than 50 maps, most of them excellent line-drawn maps created for the set. There are a few minor errors in cross-referencing and indexing.
As McNeill states in his preface, the title is â€œdesigned to help both beginners and experts to sample the best contemporary efforts to make sense of the human past by connecting particular and local histories with larger patterns of world history.â€ The encyclopedia succeeds admirably and belongs on the shelves of all high-school, public, and academic libraries. In short: buy it. Now. â€”-Ken Black