Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Story Of Mankind

There are certain books encountered in childhood which accompany you all your life. One of my own such seminal books was The Story Of Mankind by Dutch-American historian Hendrik van Loon. In fact I'm reading it again at the moment.

It's a children's history book, nearly five hundred pages long and of ambitious scope, charting the history of the world from the formation of planet Earth ("In the beginning, the planet upon which we live was, as far as we now know, a large ball of flaming matter, a tiny cloud of smoke in the endless ocean of space") to the First World War (the book was published in 1921). My copy is the 1922 Harrap edition, printed on thick, yellowing paper, with blue, gold-blocked boards and a rough-trimmed fore-edge. It's illustrated with the author's own crude but rather sweet maps and drawings. After the Foreward and Contents pages, and a "List Of Pictures And Animated Maps", the book begins like this:

"High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by."
I used to think this imaginative attempt to visually describe eternity and the vastness of time was incredibly humbling, awe-inspiring and mind-expanding — and still do. I still contemplate these four, simple sentences with a feeling of wonder. They are clear and vivid, but describe something mysterious and almost ungraspable. They have the quality of an ancient myth or fable.

Near the end of the book, on page 466, just before strip diagrams of "An Animated Chronology 500,000 B.C. — A.D. 1922" and "An Historical Reading List For Children", you find "these wise words of a very great Frenchman" (the Frenchman is Anatole France):  

"Irony and Pity are both of good counsel; the first with her smiles makes life agreeable; the other sanctifies it with her tears."


  1. What a wonderful book! Especially the way it begins with that drawing and those words.

  2. That book sounds interesting. I'm reminded of the sermon in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist (Ch 3):

    "For ever! For all eternity! Not for a year or for an age but for ever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun."

  3. Anatole France's comments on Irony and Pity are certainly thought-provoking, and I also enjoyed Dominic's addition of the quote from Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." Thanks to both of you.

  4. What a remarkable book, from the first image and accompanying text: "It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by."

  5. I reckon one of those rocks turned to dust during one of my lessons today.

    Great book! That picture is just about tattoo-worthy!

  6. A treasure of a book, and for a child enormous. How special to look back on it with adult eyes (an adult who wishes to be child-like). Irony and pity, I will think of this today.

  7. Thanks, everybody, for all these responses. That Joycean passage — a remarkable affinity there, Dominic!