I have been thinking a lot about history and interpretation. This has been brought on by a search for a good history book for kids. I have a book that has just the facts. A lovely one: Usborne World History: Ancient World. It is a glorified timeline with peoples, places, and lots of pictures. But here is why it is useless as a history 'spine.' Let us, for example, look at the Phoenicians and their alphabet.
Usborne says, "The Phoenicians invented a simple alphabet with just 22 letters. It gradually developed into the alphabet we use today." Yawn. Who cares. I am falling asleep just thinking about it. I have forgotten this minutes after reading it.
I have been reading a lot of history books written for kids and the best of the lot seem to be :
Van Loon's newberry award winning The Story of Mankind and Gombrich's A Little History of the World. Let's compare them... Here is what they have to say about the invention of the alphabet:
Gombrich: ".. With 26 simple signs, each no more than a couple of squiggles, you can write down anything you like, be it wise or silly, angelic or wicked. It wasn't [... ]as easy for the the ancient Egyptians with their hieroglyphs. Nor was it for the people who used the cuneiform script [...]. The idea that each sign might represent one sound, and that just 26 of those signs were all you needed to write every conceivable word, was a wholly new invention, one that can only have been made by people who did a lot of writing. Not just sacred text and songs, but all sorts of letters, contracts and receipts."
Van Loon says, "The Phoenicians had been familiar with the art of writing invented by the Sumerians. But they regarded these pothooks as a clumsy waste of time. They were practical business men and could not spend hours engraving two or three letters. They set to work and invented a new system of writing which was greatly superior to the old one. They borrowed a few pictured from the Egyptians, and they simplified a number of the wedge-shaped figures of the Sumerians. They sacrificed the pretty looks of the older system for the advantage of speed and they reduced the thousands of different images to a short and handy alphabet of 22 letters."
I like how Gombrich writes. It is beautiful to read. It borders just on the edge of Ben's listening comprehension. (It is usually considered a middle-school level book)... Which is why I started looking at Van Loon. Van Loon fills in a little more detail but he also fills in a LOT more interpretation. Too much interpretation. He spends a lot of time saying that people were good, bad, wise, foolish, wild, wicked, barbaric etc.
For example, here is how both authors describe the relationship between the Phoenician traders and their customers:
Van Loon: "They bought and sold whatever promised to bring them a good profit. They were not troubled by a conscience. If we are to believe all their neighbors they did not know what the word honesty or integrity meant. They regarded a well-filled treasure chest as the highest ideal of all good citizens. Indeed they were very unpleasant people and did not have a single friend."
Gombrich: "Everywhere they went they were welcomed, in Africa, Spain and in southern Italy,
on account of the beautiful things they brought."