The Cartoon History of the Modern World,
Part 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad

by Larry Gonick (Harper Perennial, 2009)

This is the fifth and final book of Larry Gonick's massive, illustrated history of the world, a project that's taken him more than 30 years to complete. It continues from The Enlightenment to the invasion of Iraq, illustrating and compressing a head-bursting amount of history into small bites of information, combining it all with his usual dry humor and complete disregard for anything politically correct.

If you want a quick overview of some of the major events of the last 2 1/2 centuries, you will get a great deal out of this book, which has observations and insights even history majors would appreciate; however, I wouldn't skip serious study in favor of this. It works well for someone who wants to be entertained or who needs a Post-it version of what's been happening in the world in the last couple hundred years. It even serves as a quite decent study supplement for children, given that the cartoons illuminate events in easily digestible ways. But there are some problems with this volume.

For one thing, there's the matter of Gonick's unabashedly leftist viewpoint. Inserting one's own personal beliefs into a history renders it non-objective. Capitalism and imperialism have indeed harmed this world but nor are cynicism and disdain morale-builders, and Gonick's ironic observations have become almost obnoxious in the non-stop slamming of Western power. If Gonick wants a personal mouthpiece for his beliefs, then perhaps he should write a book that focuses on politics and leave the politicking out of what is supposed to be an objective rendering of the human record.

Secondly, too much has happened in the last hundred years for compression to be an accurate method of rendering truth. Important events are sidestepped or oversimplified. A few examples: the Civil War, one of the most pivotal events of the 19th century, is not mentioned. The controversy surrounding the Elgin Marbles is far more complex and nuanced than Gonick gives it credit for being. Highly technical scientific developments absorb pages and pages, while World War II gets a few pages, which does a great disservice to a world-altering event.

The all-over-the-map nature of the presentation, the poor quality of the artwork, the near-complete focus on socio-political events as the sole determining factors, as opposed to all the events that impact history (e.g. geography, weather, luck), and the lack of real objectivity makes this reading experience significantly less entertaining than the previous, more well-put together volumes. It has its bright spots, most notably the modernization of Japan and its relationship to Europe, and the interconnected nature of Haitian revolution and the French revolution, which are things the average person would probably not know. Gonick does have the gift of creating an understandable flow of information. A volume that had this much sweat, blood and tears poured into it should perhaps have expanded into another volume, just to make sure enough territory was covered. An imagination that big deserves a richer and more expansive playground. As it is, this volume is cramped and overly personal, and not necessarily a worthy end to such a fantastic adventure.

review by
Mary Harvey

12 October 2013

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