Enough of feeling sorry for myself. Among several amazing books I was given this Christmas was The History of the World in 100 Objects - the book of the BBC radio series. For anyone unfamiliar with this, it's a series created by Neil MacGregor, director of The British Museum. The book is the best book on history I've ever read.
By "best" I mean best for me. I always wanted to learn about history, but found most history books nigh-on unreadable. It obviously wasn't my subject. For some reason, MacGregor's format lets me in: I suspect its emphasis on objects rather than dates fits better with my style of learning. (If you feel the same way about history, you might find it works for you, too).
I've just got to object 26, which brings us to about 500 BC. What I've found most startling so far is the sheer length of time we've been around. I'm sure I knew it, but like all good books (and teachers) MacGregor makes you stop and think about it. The first tools, made of stone, emerged about 2 million years ago. For the vast majority of those 2 million years those stone tools were all we had. If all human history were compressed into 24 hours, then all the stuff of modern life we take for granted -and I'm talking basic stuff here- would be compressed into the last few minutes. Something happened to the human brain between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. We started to be creative: we started to make patterns and decorate things. 16.500 years ago we started to make pots.
If I understand MacGregor right, this is more or less what he's saying or, at least, my take on it: each of us only has a few short years in which to stuff our human brains with memories, but the human brain has been around for so much longer than that. And although these days fatalistic wiseacres are fond of pronouncing that "you can't stop progress", for most of those millenia of millenia nothing much seems to have happened that today we would describe as "progress". What our brains are now has been formed by the lives we led over that time. No wonder that they -our brains- take us by surprise with their superstitiousness and irrationality. No wonder we find life in modern societies hard to make sense of. For example, in cities:
We sometimes just can't cope with the sheer mass of people. And this, it seems is not entirely surprising. Apparently, if you look at how many numbers we're likely to store in our mobile phone, or how many names we're likely to list on a social networking site, it's rare even for city-dwellers to exceed a couple of hundred. Social anthropologists delightedly point out that this is the size of the social group we would have had to handle in a large Stone Age village. According to them, we're all trying to cope with modern big-city life equipped only with a Stone Age social brain. We all struggle with anonymity.
Neil MacGregor: King Den's Sandal Label
It's a great read. It's a long time since I wandered around the British Museum and I didn't wander around it half so much as I wish I had when I had the chance, but this book takes me right back.
You can explore the 100 objects here.