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This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity

While Berkshire is not really an “educational” publisher, one of the things I’ve been looking at since I got home last Thursday is our first book for teachers. It’s called This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity, and it’s written by the brilliant and eloquent world historian, David Christian, who is enjoying a well-deserved year at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, an idyllic spot where he says it requires Puritan zeal to stick with his work. The book is only about a hundred pages and covers not only the history of humanity but the origins of the universe and of life, the “big history” David is known for.

His Maps of Time, published by University of California Press, is a remarkable work, and I snagged the title for our book when David told me UCP had decided not to use the quotation from Diamond Sutra:

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

[Added 2 January 2008: It comes from the final verse of the Diamond Sutra, c. fourth century CE, as translated by Kenneth Saunders, cited in Christmas Humphreys, ed., The Wisdom of Buddhism, London: The Buddhist Society, 1987, p. 122.”] I know I’m supposed to do focus groups and market surveys in order to choose a book title, not simply fall in love with a line of poetry. But this one, which sounds so much like Shakespeare, seems to work for everyone involved, and of course the author, who suggested it to UCP in the first place, approves. The book is a companion to the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History and in fact appears in it as an overview introduction. But with the help of two educators who work with world history teachers (of whom there are more and more all the time, as the subject expands in schools, most of them trained in U.S. history), Bob Bain and Lauren McArthur, we have been able to adapt the chapters into an inexpensive guide. Bob and Lauren have written foreword, a number of teachers and world historians have written blurbs, and we’ll be launching the book at the World History Association conference in June. Here’s a section that explains why This Fleeting World is so much needed:

Consider, for example, what happened at a workshop we recently conducted for over seventy-five world history teachers. We began by asking them to tell a five-minute story of the history of the United States. Everyone got right to work, quickly identifying familiar eras and events, and then explaining relationships between them. Other than a few details, most teachers quickly and easily constructed a similar and familiar story that explained the growth and development of the United States. When we then asked them to create a five-minute story of western civilization, again the teachers got right to work. They also were able quickly to craft a common story of western history, one that included similar turning points and events. These history teachers – ranging from relative novices to seasoned veterans – seemed to have readily available and useful big pictures of the history of the United States and the west that they employed to narrate change over time and to locate, within the big story, historical details visible only at smaller scales.

However, when we asked the group to create a five-minute story of world history, the reaction was different. No one got right down to the task. Some struggled over where to begin the story, others confessed a lack of knowledge in certain time periods or regions of the world, and still others told a Eurocentric story that they made world historical by mentioning China or India. Unlike U.S. history or western civilization, the teachers did not use a large scale story to frame their thinking of the world’s history. Without a readily available big picture, these teachers reported feeling bogged down with details, unsure about what to include, what to leave out, and how things were connected to each other.

And here is what William H. McNeill, Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago, says about the book:

Julius Caesar famously summed up the surprises and confusion of ten years of war in Gaul with three Latin words: veni, vidi, vici. ”I came, I saw, I conquered.” Here David Christian performs a similar feat by summing up the surprises and confusion of 250,000 years of human history in 56 pages and improves on Caesar’s boast by showing how persistent collective learning expanded human skills, and enlarged our numbers, wealth, and power across the ages. What a quick, convenient, and persuasive way to begin to understand the confusing world in which we find ourselves!

A lovely thing about the project is that many of the people who worked on the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, our first big independent title in 2005, are putting this book together. Francesca Forrest is doing the copyediting, Marcy Ross is handling much of the editorial work, and star compositor Brad Walrod is doing the layout. My daughter Rachel, interning with us this year before going off to college, is the project coordinator and apparently relishes this role as she loves making checklists, especially for other people. Brad wrote an article about working on the project for a Quark magazine’s “In the Trenches: Case Studies” [Note 29 August 2010: article no longer available]. It has some amusing comments about publishers that he was a little worried about my seeing. We’re improving, I think, and Brad has become an essential part of our team.

4 thoughts on “This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity

  1. […] I’m at the World History Association conference in Milwaukee and have the delightful experience of meeting some of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History authors and also being here with David Christian, author of our hot-off-the-press This Fleeting World: A Brief History of Humanity, and the education specialists, Bob Bain and Lauren McArthur, who wrote the foreword. It’s not yet available via our shopping cart but will be by Monday, and can be ordered in multiple copies at substantial discount. I’ll get a cover up, too. In the meantime, some background at a previous post. […]

  2. I noticed you did not cite a reference for the translation of the last four lines from the Diamond Sutra, quoted above. Do you know the source of this particular translation? I have seen other ones that are similar but not quite as poetic.

    It would be a good idea in the future to give references.



  3. It comes from the final verse of the ‘Diamond Sutra’, c. fourth century CE, as translated by Kenneth Saunders, cited in Christmas Humphreys, ed., The Wisdom of Buddhism, London: The Buddhist Society, 1987, p. 122.

  4. Veni, vidi, VICI, not vinci, Madame.
    See my blog.

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