Courtesy Reuters

The Distant Horizon

In This Review

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World

By William J. Bernstein
Atlantic Monthly, 2008
384 pp. $30.00
Purchase

Twenty years ago, the distinguished economic historian David Landes wrote an article in The New Republic about what he called "Big History." It was a review of William McNeill's extraordinary The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since A.D. 1000 and of my own more modest work The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. By the term "Big History," he did not have in mind such multivolume works as Arnold Toynbee's 12-volume A Study of History, or Samuel Morison's 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, or Joseph Needham's impossible to count how many volumes of Science and Civilisation in China. Nor did Landes mean to imply by the use of "big" that this mode of inquiry was superior to that of the history-from-below school that had emerged, spectacularly, in the 1960s. He had no quarrel with accounts of life in Provençal villages, of northern Italian millers, or of trade unionists in Lancashire. He was simply calling readers' attention to a different category or, if you like, a different level of historical writing.

What Landes had in mind were single-volume books whose authors took hold of a vast topic and then wrestled it to the ground, comprehended it, and explained it to readers -- in sum, gave it historical sense. This creative intellectual grappling with big themes described, of course, Landes' own pedagogic journey, a career in which the subjects attempted became bolder and grander: from Bankers and Pashas: International Finance and Economic Imperialism in Egypt to The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe From 1750 to the Present and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor.

Landes' is a hard act to follow, and most of us historians have been happy to sail, at some distance, in his wake. Three recent books, however, have taken up the challenge of Big History: William Bernstein's A Splendid Exchange, Strobe Talbott's The Great Experiment,

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