Having staggered out of an Oxford hospital at some ungodly hour in November 2009, after watching my wife give birth to our son, I went in search of coffee and a newspaper. Settling down to read about what was happening in the ‘real world’, I tried to focus on an article describing a collaboration between the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 entitled A History of the World in 100 Objects. Neil MacGregor’s wonderful 100-part radio series and subsequent Penguin book of the same name would offer a global history of the world by drawing on a selection of the museum’s objects chosen from over two million years of human civilisation. I might have applauded such a wonderful initiative more enthusiastically if it wasn’t for the fact that two years earlier I had signed up to write a book with the same publisher called A History of the World in 12 Maps (out in September). There is, of course, no copyright on titles, nor was this one identical. After a soothing talk from my editor, I found myself agreeing with the design critic Stephen Bayley, who described discovering that someone had used the same title as him as ‘like being mugged by your granny, disturbing but harmless’. Nevertheless, as subsequent writers continue to use variations on the ‘History of the World’ formula, from Chris McNab’s A History of the World in 100 Weapons to James Fox’s forthcoming television series A History of Art in Three Colours, it strikes me that there is something more going on here than pure coincidence.
Perhaps we have all been inspired by Julian Barnes’s novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989). Yet where such playful fiction can explore and parody the ‘cunning passages’ and ‘contrived corridors’ of history, non-fiction has to tread more carefully. Publishers are inevitably prey to the ambitious title