Book Review: I Used To Know That: World History

I Used To Know That: World History: Intriguing Facts About The World’s Greatest Empires, Leaders, Cultures, and Conflicts, by Emma Marriott

This book is a short and entertaining work that seeks to write to adults a superficial understanding of world history so that readers who may have been bored by their coursework in high school or perhaps college in the subject of world history have enough context to have a basic understanding of the relationship of historical matters to contemporary politics and culture. The author is not an expert on military history, nor is this book organized precisely in a chronological fashion. Additionally, at about 170 pages, many of which are filled with amusing if somewhat classist drawings that show elite figures in a far more flattering light than the commonfolk most of us happen to be, there simply is not enough paper to discuss material in the sort of depth that a reader like myself would normally expect. That said, the audience of this book is an audience that only has time for short books if they bother to read at all, not the sort of intensive reading that I undertake as a matter of course.

In terms of its contents, this book consists of ten chapters, dealing with early civilizations, the dark ages, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, the age of discovery, the Enlightenment (which the author labors falsely as the age of reason), the age of empire, World War I and the interwar period, World War II, and the new globalism. After these ten chapters comes a brief timeline that seeks to place the events of history in a chronological order [1]. The book makes its point elegantly and efficiently through lists, broad and superficial summaries, quotes from notable writings taken out of context, and a lot of entertaining drawings. In light of the general superficiality of the approach of the book as a whole, it is noteworthy that the author takes the time to write an entire page discussing the five pillars of Islam, which led a Muslim acquaintance of mine [2] to claim that the 2.5% alms required of Muslims was greater than the harsh taxes on non-Muslims who are harshly considered to be dhimmi. Someone needs to do their math, after all.

Reading a book like this will not make one an expert in world history, nor even someone who is knowledgeable enough to possess a great deal of expertise in the subject, or even pass an AP exam in the subject, not that this would be a measure of expertise given the political biases inherent in the contemporary AP Exams as a whole. This book is not perfect–it states that Byzantium fell in 1071 due to the battle of Mankizert even though Constantinople managed to hold off the Turks until 1453, which is noted in the timeline, thankfully. Nevertheless, despite minor flaws and a tendency to glorify leaders and look down on ordinary people, something I take more than a little personally, this book does accomplish its aim, and that is to convey at least a basic knowledge of some of the most important facts about world empires, leaders, cultures, and conflicts. Given the book’s short length and highly visual and efficient approach to its subject matter, this is likely to be a book that is appreciated by many readers who need to brush up on their world history so they do not beclown themselves in conversations with more knowledgeable peers.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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