[Here is the sixth in a series of reviews of texts and readers by Northeastern University graduate students.]
Marc Anthony Meyer, THE SEARCH FOR ORDER: LANDMARKS OF WORLD CIVILIZATIONS, 2 vols.
--reviewed by Brian Carr, Northeastern University
Marc Anthony Meyer's two-volume source book is a well organized and important contribution to the teaching of world history. It is very reader-friendly, and appears to be geared towards high-level high school or introductory college courses in World History.
In this two-volume set, Meyer challenges the reader to search for an order in World History. What makes this reader so valuable is that Meyer does not attempt to force on the reader his interpretation of order, but instead allows the reader to forge his or her own conclusion. Certainly one could argue that Meyer indirectly influences the reader's conclusions through his selections of material, but this argument could be directed at any historical text.
THE SEARCH FOR ORDER is not a narrative, but a compilation of 156 written and visual primary sources. This is what makes it so valuable. It places the responsibility to interpret history in the lap of the reader, whereas ordinarily that responsibility is left to the author(s) of the text.
One of the pitfalls of assembling a text comprised entirely of sources of this nature is that too often the reader is not provided with enough of the document to really digest it thoroughly. Meyer, for the most part, avoids this pitfall. For example, he includes in volume one the Book of Genesis, and treats the reader to its first nine chapters. This compares very favorably to a similar reader, Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield's THE HUMAN RECORD: SOURCES OF GLOBAL HISTORY, which provides the reader with only chapters six through nine of Genesis. This contrast remains obvious in comparing these two readers: Meyer includes longer selections from his documents, whereas Andrea and Overfield include shorter selections but more documents in their two-volume set. In this case, comprehensiveness wins out over coverage.
The organization of THE SEARCH FOR ORDER is an important key to its clarity. Each volume focuses on three historical periods. Volume one (3500 B.C.E. to 1500 C.E.) addresses "The Ancient World," "The Classical World," and "The Medieval World." Volume two (1500 to the present) addresses "The Early Modern World," "The Modern World," and "The Contemporary World." Each of these eras is studied georgraphically, in the following order: Southwest Eurasia and Africa, South and Southeast Eurasia, East Eurasia, West Eurasia, and the Americas (commencing in the Medieval section). Most important to this organizational format, however, are the brief chronologies that Meyer includes throughout the two volumes. Each geographical section, within each era, is preceded by a chronology of the major events in the area during that era. The importance of these chronologies should not be overlooked. When working with various documents, as opposed to a narrative, it is often extemely difficult to get a sense of when something happened, especially when one wants to study the impact of what was happening in society on the document, or vice versa. These chronologies are a major coup for Meyer, and their omission from Andrea and Overfield is a flaw.
When analyzing a World History source book, the historical content is certainly the most important issue to be considered. What also must be taken into consideration is the readability of the text and whether or not it is easy to use. These issues will be examined next.
THE SEARCH FOR ORDER is very pleasing to the eye. The print is neither miniscule nor hard to read, the documents are clearly labeled, and Meyer makes good use of spacing. Although these points may seem trivial to some, it facilitates both the reading and annotation of the text.
Four study questions accompany each document, appearing at the end of each document. These study questions have both positive and negative qualities attached to them. On the positive side, they help the reader to focus attention on the main point(s) of the documents. Thus, the questions range from a lower to a higher order of thinking. On the negative side, however, these questions are the one main area in which Meyer can strongly influence the reader's interpretation of the documents. By asking the reader to compare an event in document A with an event in document B, for example, he is conditioning the reader, to a certain extent, to look at the document in a certain light. Despite this, however, it is preferable to have the study questions included in the text.
Meyer uses two tactics that make his reader more user-friendly than Andrea and Overfield's THE HUMAN RECORD. First, he puts key terms and the names of significant individuals in boldface, which indicates that they can be found in the glossary at the end of each chapter. This is extremely useful, because it is impossible for the ordinary reader to keep track of each name and each new term as he or she reads a two-volume collection. The glossary makes it simple and easy to look up the name or term, rather than having to search through the documents or one's notes to recall it. Second, Meyer includes an unprecedented table in the back of each volume, entitled "Reference Guide to Standard World History Textbooks." This table is meant to facilitate the reader's use of the primary sources in Meyer's text. In the table, he matches up each one of his documents to the chapter and page number in which the same topic is treated in twelve narrative textbooks.
In conclusion, Marc Anthony Meyer's THE SEARCH FOR ORDER: LANDMARKS OF WORLD CIVILIZATIONS is an important contribution to the teaching of World History and should be well received by students exploring history from a global perspective for the first time. It is highly readable, user-friendly, and a useful reference for the accomplished world historian as well as the beginner.
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