Book Review: The Transformation of the World

Author: Jurgen Osterhammel
Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Wold History
Page Count: 919, not counting the preface, notes, index, or bibliography. 1167 all together.

Translated from German, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the 19th Century is exactly what it says on the tin: an examination of the major events and changes in thought made the 1800s a period of unprecedented progress in technology, medicine, philosophy, and pretty much every aspect of life.

I feel like I have a complicated relationship with this book. I first picked it up around Thanksgiving, but with all of the craziness of the holidays it lay forgotten until the end of January.

It took me every bit of three months to read it. Don’t get me wrong; this book is fascinating, but it’s incredibly dense and it is decidedly more scholarly than I normally read; it wasn’t something that I could sit down and consume a chapter or two at once. I usually read no more than 5-10 pages in a sitting, usually while eating breakfast or dinner.

For someone whose history education focused primarily on American history to start and European art history to finish, this book was a great primer in what was happening in other parts of the world–South America, Africa, India, China, Japan.

The very nature of this volume means that it did not explore any one topic or location in depth, but it is a good jumping off point. I now have at least six different events that I want to research more fully, and it helped me get a better understanding of those places that my early education ignored.

I felt a bit like I was reading a textbook for a college-level world history course. there were some events that I do have familiarity with, but have always studied them from the perspective of the host country (for example, the modernization of China and Japan in the late 19th century). Because the author was concerned with the global perspective, i.e. how the world viewed these events, rather than the inhabitants of the nation in question, some of these events were presented in a much different light that I am used to seeing them.

Though a bit dry in places, there are bits of humor sprinkled in (only a few, though). While the beginning is a bit wordy, once I got into the meat of the text I found it to be highly informative and for the most part very direct.

If you are interested in world history, then this book is definitely a great starting point, but if you are looking for something specific then give it a pass. While the information is more reliable, it doesn’t go much more in depth on most events than a well-written Wikipedia article. Still, it is something like having a single-volume encyclopedia of the entire 19th century, and the bibliography is certainly something worth exploring.

After 919 pages, though, I’m ready for something a little lighter now!