The Cartoon History of the Modern World

Larry Gonick’s books are impressive: they’re wickedly funny, culturally insightful, and more educational than some college classes I’ve attended.

His latest series, following up from the The Cartoon History of the Universe books… well, I’ll let the PR explain it:

The Cartoon History of the Modern World cover
The Cartoon History of the Modern World
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Cartoon History of the Modern World Part I covers the history of ancient Mexico, the Spanish conquests, the Portuguese empire in Asia and Brazil, national and religious upheavals in Europe and India, the colonial ventures of France, Britain, and the Netherlands in North America and elsewhere, the development of science and parliamentary government, and the foundation of the United States.

That’s quite a lot for a 250-some-page book, but Gonick has the ability to explain history clearly and concisely. The book is subtitled “From Columbus to the US Constitution”, but I appreciate Gonick starting slightly before then, with the established native civilizations.

Pictures are a terrific way to find out what daily life in different eras were like, and Gonick nicely balances the big picture (such as a cityscape) with insets of individual activities. To keep readers interested, there’s plenty of odd tidbits along with the usual factual dates and significant events. I also appreciate the way he’s capable of saying “I (or scholars) don’t know” — this isn’t the old-fashioned “here’s the one true story” version of history.

Gonick seems to follow the “great man” approach, peppering his book with plenty of famous names, although they don’t come off so great once he finishes with them. In order to enjoy this book, you also need to be willing to consider that religion is not always a positive force, given the wars and devastation it inspires.

Sample pages are available at Gonick’s website.

(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

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