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."