The First Century

An eclectic genre that includes children’s books as well as narrative histories operates on what might be called the REAR WINDOW principle: taking a slice of time and showing some of the happenings which are simultaneously unfolding within that framework. In three previous books— 1919: THE YEAR OUR WORLD BEGAN; 1941: OUR LIVES IN A WORLD ON THE EDGE; and 1929: THE YEAR OF THE GREAT CRASH—freelance historian William Klingaman has exploited the durable fascination of such a perspective. In his new book he applies the same method not to a single year but to an entire century.

It doesn’t work. Many readers will begin to feel uneasy even before they’ve finished the preface, where Klingaman expresses the “hope that certain intriguing parallels and comparisons between the Far East and the Mediterranean world in political, military, and spiritual matters will become clear to the perceptive reader without any excessive prompting from me.” This neatly absolves Klingaman of any responsibility to explicate the alleged “parallels and comparisons,” which turn out to be so general as to be meaningless (e.g., while Christianity was born in the Middle East, Buddhism, imported from India, first appeared in China). It is in the preface, too, that Klingaman gives an inaccurate reason for excluding Africa and the Western Hemisphere from consideration: “not enough information available to fashion even the most cursory narrative of events.” Instead, he might simply have said that he couldn’t cover everything in one volume.

Misgivings are fulfilled when Klingaman begins telling the multiple stories that make up the book. In an ill-conceived attempt to engage the reader, he adopts a chatty tone that frequently becomes ludicrous ("Now Germanicus was really in a bind"). THE FIRST CENTURY is the sort of book that has given popular history a bad name.