THERE IS no good reason why centuries - let alone millennia - should be considered as meaningful units of time. They do not correspond to any of the patterns of change historians have claimed to discover: not the rise and fall of empires, nor the "long waves" of economic boom and bust, nor the slower tides of climatic alteration. And a century is just a bit too long for the terms of a human lifespan. If Pacific redwood trees or Galapagos tortoises wrote history books, they might find meaning in the idea of a century, but why should we?
A general history of the 20th century might thus be thought an impossible and meaningless enterprise. But it is also a challenge historians cannot resist. Oxford has got in early with its version and, as attempts at the impossible go, Michael Howard and Wm Roger Louis have made a better shot than most of their rivals are likely to manage.
The volume is uneven, patchy, partial and full of gaping holes: it could not be otherwise. There seems no obvious reason, for instance, why the visual arts should have a chapter while music, literature, the cinema and architecture do not. Yet it is also intelligently organised, imaginatively illustrated, accessible, lucid and - so far as one can judge across such a vast canvas - factually ultra- reliable. In places, as with Alan Ryan's and Ralf Dahrendorf's contributions, it goes beyond the solid survey to offer genuinely bold and provocative argument about where the world is now going.
So what is in it, and what is not? First, the book is what the title says: the century as seen from Oxford University and a few other prestigious academies of the Anglophone world. The contributors are almost all British or US-born white males who have spent most of their careers working in that rather special milieu. To note this is not to engage in a trivial piece of "PC" whingeing. All the contributors are globally respected experts, and no one could complain that, say, Terence Ranger on Africa or Roger Owen on the Middle East take narrowly Eurocentric views of their subjects. Rather, it is to underline that this is a view from a very particular place. That matters because, from other perspectives, a central part of the century's story has been a gradual decline in the relative importance of that place.
One could go further, and float the suggestion that across most of recorded history East Asia - above all China - has been the real centre of the world on every level, from sheer population, through technological sophistication, to …