Paul Johnson's thousand-page book is geared to the present age of long print runs and mass marketing. It is one of the currently popular narrative histories written by Britons who position themselves mid-Atlantic, in order to address the American reader. At a thousand pages Johnson's book is longer than Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 1988 (subtitle, 'Economic Change and Military Conflict, 1500-2000'), or Simon Schama's Citizens, 1989. At first glance it looks as if the reader gets a smaller return, a mere 15 years of history at a point when, on the face of it, nothing dramatic was happening. In fact, the big problems Johnson offers to explain prove familiar, the same late 20th-century preoccupations addressed by the other two. 'The Birth of the Modern [political world]' is a conventional 20th-century way of viewing the French Revolution - the event and idea on which Schama wrote a long, critical footnote. In one sense, Johnson's book, picking up at the point of revolutionary France's defeat, reads like Citizens II. Meanwhile his subtitle, 'World Society', offers the access to geopolitics and to the total explanation that made Kennedy so seductive.
LRB 12 September 1991 | PDF Download