On the final page of "The Human Story," James Davis squeezes all of history into just 16 clever lines of verse. Using "steam, vaccines, and votes," he writes, we yanked ourselves out of ignorance, disease, and poverty and set out to know the universe. We "sent men and mirrors as our eyes/ To search the black, galactic skies; And in our cells, till then unseen/ We found our Fates, our djinns: our genes." How do things stand at the dawn of the 21st century? "The world's still cruel, that's understood,/ But once was worse. So far so good."
That's the conclusion of this informal, often lively, and always S-I-M-P-L-E short history of humanity. In some ways it's a Reader's Digest version of our past, or perhaps "World History for Dummies." Enough names, places, and dates are dished out to help if you're playing "Trivial Pursuit." But not so many that it becomes an encyclopedia in disguise.
In fact, Davis constantly turns verbal backflips to keep his prose fresh and more entertaining than the junior high school textbook this could have become. Well-chosen anecdotes often bring the narrative alive. He tells an ancient male chauvinist joke written in Sumeria, the first known civilization, around 4000 BC: "My wife is at the shrine, my mother is down by the river," the man complains, "and here I am dying of hunger!" Or he reminds us that President Theodore Roosevelt's robust policy in Central America can be summed up in a palindrome: "A MAN A PLAN A CANAL PANAMA." A single paragraph shows the dedication of workers at a seed bank in the Soviet Union during the siege of Stalingrad. They died of starvation at their desks, we learn, rather than eat the rare specimens of rice, peanuts, and grains kept in their charge.
But sometimes the images are strained: "The [communist] system often functioned badly," he says, "like an elephant that tries to waltz." Other times, he's too florid, as when he describes personal computers as "fairy queens who flourished wands and changed the poorest Third World hamlets into glowing symbols of the dawning age."
Even when the passages clunk, however, Davis deserves credit for also displaying humor and craft. In a nutshell, (and what other way can you write a history of the world in under 500 pages?) he sums up the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy that kept the US and Soviet Union from plunging into a nuclear holocaust like this: "They learned instead to walk around each other on their toes, stiff-legged, sometimes snarling, never biting." Describing the biotech revolution, he quickly sketches, "In the decades after World War II our species crossed a line. Of course, as individual humans we didn't change; we look and feel the way we did before. But as a species we achieved a previously undreamed of mastery of life."
A quote from a woman in Peru, the last speaker of an Indian dialect, symbolizes the loss of indigenous cultures around the world: "I dream in Chamicuro, but I cannot tell my dreams to anyone," she laments. "Some things cannot be said in Spanish. It's lonely being last."
Davis takes a few stands on historical controversies. He treats Jesus as a legitimate and important figure, though it's a minimalist view that will frustrate some readers. He finds absolutely no controversy in the United States dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, though many others have. Germans would like to think that few knew what was going on in the Nazi death camps, but he concludes that "everybody knew." And though World War II is often thought of as "the good war," he chillingly sums it up with a brief list of the horrible ways people died.
Interested teens will find "The Human Story" an easy read. Busy adults presumably will race through it for an executive summary of history, or thumb the index to track down a fact that eludes them. If you're shaky on who were the early Indus people or exactly what were those poems and essays called the Upanishads that undergird modern Hinduism, here's an instant refresher.
"In spite of all we hear and say, the world has been improving for a good long time," Davis comfortingly concludes. Or as he sums it up with just four words: "So far, so good."
• Gregory M. Lamb writes on healthcare policy and technology for the Monitor.