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Is it possible to know about the human journey from its beginning to the present?

“The story of our world is a story that is still very imperfectly known,” says H G Wells at the beginning of his 1922 classic A Short History of the World. It is an extraordinary period-work that recounts ‘the great adventure of mankind.’ In the preface Wells says: “This short history of the world is meant to be read straightforwardly almost as a novel is read. It gives in the most general way an account of our present knowledge of history, shorn of elaborations and complications.”

Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) was born into a late-Victorian, South London family in humble circumstances and was educated to become a school teacher. But he found that he liked writing, too. By the time he died, Wells had left behind a vast oeuvre. His Short History though stands out, especially now, in August 2014, as the world marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Short History came in the wake of the First World War, as the era of European predominance was coming to an end.

“The first thing that strikes you about Wells’ Short History is its zest. The reader wants to know what happens next, and though the book can be read on a four-hour train journey, quite a lot of it will stick in the memory,” says Norman Stone in the introduction, adding, “He takes the reader in easy stages from the origins of Earth to the outcome of the First World War – a task that would have daunted anyone with ten times as many pages at his disposal as Wells.”

Wells had journalistic training: the ability to see the sense of something complicated, and to turn it into something readable, and he believed in the alliance of science and the common people. The hero country in this book is the United States: classless, technological, pacific. But the author also knew that empires rise and fall. As Stone points out: “New weaponry, better communications, the rise of printing, and whole host of mechanical inventions – he catalogues these with great verve – made it more and more important for men’s social affairs to be rationally ordered. In other words: down with kings, horses and priests; up with science, planning and fun.”

As one witnesses the contemporary wars raging around us, one wonders what Wells would have made of them in early twenty-first century? What he says at the end of the book tells us why it’s worth reading in the present;

“Man is still only adolescent. His troubles are not the troubles of senility and exhaustion but of increasing and still undisciplined strength. When we look at all history as one process, as we have been doing in this book, when we see the steadfast upward struggle of life towards vision and control, then we see in their true proportions the hopes and dangers of the present time. As yet we are hardly in the earliest dawn of human greatness…”

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