Before I say anything else, I just have to say how much I deeply and genuinely enjoyed this book. It is an astounding feat. Based on the BBC radio series of the same name (the podcasts available here), the idea is simple, if daunting: Describe the entirety of human history with 100 objects from the British Museum.
Yes, I can see you thinking about it already. What would you choose? Why would you choose those particular objects? What are the seminal objects to encapsulate the history of Man from the earliest hominids to the modern day? It's an incredible challenge and the book is extremely well written. I learned things even about objects and events and dynasties I thought I was very well informed on. Even more so, the way the history of any particular object is narrated is deeply and intellectually satisfying and links together and meshes amazingly with the other objects featured throughout the book, interweaving the constants in the human story with grand themes of food, war, sex, love, religion and death.
And actually it's this meshing of objects which tell a tale of an entire world coming together and intersecting with each other, despite the fact that most of us are raised with a very Western view of history, that makes it so interesting - to say nothing of the actual objects themselves. MacGregor deftly and even-handedly manages to represent a phenomenal balance between various empires as the world grew up and the intellectual ideas, forces and campaigns that shaped the world at those times, as represented by the objects themselves.
My critiques of the book are few and far between and easily deflected. First off, as we reach the modern era, the objects selected tend to become suspect as, in a sense, our story is still being told. Is a credit card or the Throne of Arms really as representative of humanity as, say… a gold coin of Croesus?
The other nitpick is simply that it is too limited, being tied as it is to just the British Museum. For example, where MacGregor was perhaps forced to pick a fragment of a pronouncement by Ashoka to represent codification of laws, my mind instantly leapt to the stelae of the Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre. Where he picked the Assyrian reliefs, I would have picked the reconstructed Ishtar Gate of Babylon in the Pergamon in Berlin.
Still, I have to say despite the length and detail and fact I was often looking up side and source material while reading this book (makes me wish when I have an iPad that my laptop or mini was aware of things and could be put in some sort of support mode to be looking up things for me. ;-) )., I'd have to say I heartily recommend this to anyone that needs a good, distracting and intellectually stimulating swing through human history.
Oh, and also, interesting in itself is the way I came to this book and a reflection on technology and objects itself. I ran across the entire History of the World in 100 Objects radio show itself, which predates this book, from a Kickstarter project I funded which seeks to build an imaginary history of the future, through its objects, A History of the Future in 100 Objects. As MacGregor himself says in the book when he's picking the representative objects of the modern era; is he choosing right? Are these indeed the shape of things to come? Perhaps only the curator of the British museum in 2110 will look back and either sneer derisively or applaud his choices.
I'd also spruik the iPad Kindle version of this which allows you to blow up the pictures of the objects for closer examination. Found that when I switched over to the Amazon Kindle hardware, the experience with the eInk was not as rich. I imagine this thing makes a spectacular coffee table book though.