McNeill, William H., Jerry H. Bentley, David Christian, David Levinson,
J.R. McNeill, Heidi Roupp, and Judith P. Zinsser, eds. Berkshire Encyclopedia
of World History (Berkshire Publishing Group, 2005). 2,221 pp, $575.00.
I recall reading somewhere that one of the
joys of historical pursuit lay precisely in having a road map — and then
summarily veering off into tangent upon tangent. A footnote in an obscure
text leads to a curious discussion miles from where you once were headed,
and that, in turn, points you in yet another unpredictable direction.
Encyclopedias, perhaps, demand such intellectual
improvisation — after all, who among us has the patience to read an encyclopedia,
cover to cover, as if it were a single narrative history? Facilitating just
such mindful wandering is the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History,
a five-volume set released earlier this year. The set's editors — a who's
who of some of the most influential and distinguished world historians among
us, includes, as senior editor, William H. McNeill, and an editorial staff
headed by world history luminaries such as Jerry H. Bentley, David Christian,
David Levinson, John R. McNeill, Heidi Roupp, and Judith P. Zinsser. The
combined 2,221 pages of the Berkshire Encyclopedia amount to an extraordinary
range of scholarship organized and presented in a fashion useful to fellow
professors, college students, and secondary teachers and their students.
Volume 1 begins with an alphabetized list
of the 538 subject entries, followed by the 34 thematic categories by which
the entries have been organized. The categories range from continents to
commerce, and from periodization to population. As for the entries themselves,
the breadth is stunning. In addition to the expected„discussions of, for
example, the Columbian Exchange (authored, appropriately, by Alfred Crosby)
and decolonization„the encyclopedia's editors traveled far afield with the
inclusion of such arguably obscure topics as anthroposphere (the part of
the biosphere affected by humans), bullroarers, travel guides, and the Wagadu
empire of the west African sahel.
William McNeill supplies a brief historiographical
essay on the development of history as a discipline. He begins by discussing
the Israelite, Greek, and Chinese historians of antiquity. He pauses to
mention some of the towering figures in historiography, including Ibn Khaldun
and Giambattista Vico, before moving on to discuss the general contours
of historical thinking that led, eventually, to the nationalist-liberal
Eurocentric tradition of the 19th century. That, in turn, sets
the 20th century stage for the emergence of the so-called "new" world history practiced by an increasing number of scholars. It also provides
the context within which the Berkshire Encyclopedia becomes a relevant
and vital addition to the field. To complement McNeill's historiographical
essay, David Christian has a short survey of world history that, despite
its brevity, is quite remarkable. Appropriately titled "This Fleeting World,"
this 56-page overview reflects the very wide "Big History" lens through
which Professor Christian has earned acclaim among his peers and, it would
seem, among non-specialists.
The overall merit of the encyclopedia lies
in the generally high quality of the more than 500 individual entries. Varying
in length depending on the subject, the encyclopedia's contributors wrote
with the non-specialist in mind. To wit, the set's treatment of the Indian
Ocean should appeal to just about every level of world history student.
The "Maritime History" entry's seven-page chronology of seafaring history
provides a case in point. Not unexpectedly, the entry focuses on the Indian
Ocean and Mediterranean Sea until the early-modern European trans-Atlantic
voyages. The coverage, although general, is certainly valuable. It is in
the six-page entry "Trading Patterns, Indian Ocean," however, that one explores
the critically important network in depth. The handling of "Trading Patterns"
is superb, even if it doesn't represent fresh scholarship. Similarly focused
narratives of the Mediterranean, Mesoamerica, the Pacific, and the Trans-Saharan
trade routes — entries that may profit the Indian Ocean specialist, follow
The set's shortcomings are few but obvious.
First, the editors failed to cross-reference "Maritime History" and "Trading
Patterns" with one another. Indeed, although a great many entries encourage
and facilitate cross-reference "wandering" through the volumes — for example,
in the way "Diasporas" does ("see also Asian Migrations; Expansion, European;
Global Migration in Modern Times; Migrations; Pacific, Settlement of") —
the lack of direction given in some of the maritime/trade entries does suggest
a degree of unevenness. Second, the spelling and pronunciation guide of
"100 important people, places, and terms in world history" is also uneven.
Some entries are helpful (Mencius: MEN-chee-us), while others perhaps unnecessary
(e.g. "Jesus" and "Egypt"). Oddly, Khubilai Khan merits inclusion in this
rather exclusive list of 100, but he fails to make the cut of 110 biographical
entries in the main body of the encyclopedia itself. There are a great many
students of world history who could have profited from this section being
made substantially longer.
| On more minor
notes, the page numbers for the maps listed near the beginning of volume
1 are omitted. At a more superficial level, the Berkshire Encyclopedia's dominant art motif is by turns both clever and irritating. The motif is
that of the prehistoric cave art of France and Spain — arresting figures
of humans hunting big game. This motif, adumbrated on the cover of each
volume, includes not just the icons of hunters and game, but also humans
with a plow, in business suits, and riding skateboards. The motif is certainly
clever in the way it extends "cave art" to the post-modern world, but the
stick figures' placement throughout the five volumes comes off as purposeless
and vaguely sophomoric. And finally, it's not clear exactly what is achieved
by including Professor Christian's "This Fleeting World" twice in the set
— once, near the beginning (which is where it naturally fits); and a second
time at the end of volume 5.
| Criticisms notwithstanding,
the Berkshire Encyclopedia is undeniably valuable as a source of
quick and reliable reference for scholars and non-specialists alike. Beyond
that, the set clearly has applications for secondary teachers within the
classroom. The encyclopedia does, on balance, provide useful guidance for
students pursuing a historic thread through multiple entries. In addition,
the short bibliographies following each entry are invaluable for more in-depth "wandering." Inasmuch as each of the standard World History texts have weaknesses
— if not outright blind spots — the Berkshire Encyclopedia can fill
an important niche as a sort of back-up to the primary text. In addition,
the wide range of topics and general accessibility of the writing all but
beg teachers to find some way of incorporating the set into their curriculum.
Rio Rico High School