Last night, my agent sent me an email headed “Your PW review.” Naturally, I opened it.

This went against all my best intentions. The problem with reviews is that they are sometimes written by intelligent and thoughtful people who offer helpful insights, and sometimes by self-important and ignorant jerks who are more interested in proclaiming their own ideas than interacting with yours. The problem with writers is that both kinds of reviews affect us equally. Shrugging off idiocy is well-nigh impossible.

This particular project has two peculiarities which make review-reading even more hazardous. In the first place, because it’s a four-volume project, I still feel very connected to the first volume as I work on the second. Normally, by the time a book comes out, you’re about eighteen months away from the creative phase, which makes criticism easier to handle. But I’m basically still in the middle of the creative process, and unfavorable reviews have the potential to stop me cold.

(The best place for a writer to live while writing a history of the world. No contact with the outside whatsoever.)

Second, the History of the World is a REALLY BIG SURVEY. When I started working on it, my favorite journal editor, John Wilson of Books & Culture, said, “You know, every historian who reads this is going to hate the section that deals with their speciality and like the rest.” How true. This kind of book requires simplification of complex issues. Scholars who have spent their working careers teasing out the complexities of the various historical episodes I relate will inevitably feel that I’ve simplified way, way, way too much

I decided that I should probably pass all reviews through my assistant, who could decide whether or not it would be helpful for me to read them. However, what are you going to do when the first industry review (PW=Publisher’s Weekly) shows up in an email?

Open it, of course.

So I read it. Then I had to decide whether to post it here. This was a more complicated decision than you might think, because 1) it wasn’t entirely positive, and 2) I firmly believe (and have said in public) that it does writers no good to complain about reviews. You write, you put it out there, and you let the readers decide whether it’s worthwhile.

In an attempt to practice what I preach, I have decided to post the review without comment. I have, however, also decided to post, below the review, the chunk of text to which the reviewer refers.

And then perhaps all of YOU can weigh in.


Publisher’s Weekly review, 11/20/06

The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome
Susan Wise Bauer. Norton, $29.95 (800p) ISBN 978-0-393-05974-8

Bauer (author of the four-volume The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child) guides readers on a fast-paced yet thorough tour of the ancient worlds of Sumer, Egypt, India, China, Greece, Mesopotamia and Rome. Drawing on epics, legal texts, private letters and court histories, she introduces individuals who lived through the famines, plagues, floods, wars and empire building of the ancient world: the marvelous array of characters includes Gilgamesh, Sumer’s first epic hero; Yü, the founder of the Xia dynasty in China; and Tiglath-Pileser III, who restored the Assyrian empire’s fortunes. Because Bauer covers so much time and territory, she focuses on the Western cultures with which she seems most comfortable; the chapters on Asia and India are the least developed. In addition, some of her assertions—for instance, that the biblical book of Joshua is the clearest guide we possess to the establishment of an Israelite kingdom in Canaan—contradict general scholarly opinion or are simply wrong. However, Bauer’s elegant prose and her command of much of the material makes this a wonderful starting point for the study of the ancient world. 80 maps. (Feb.)


The text to which the reviewer refers is a footnote which reads, in its entirety, ” Like the Exodus, the Conquest has been assigned widely varying dates across a span of centuries. Like the Exodus, the Conquest has also been rejected entirely by some scholars, who prefer to interpret the archaeological evidence as indicating a gradual invasion carried out by various small groups of Hebrew invaders. Since the evidence is inconclusive, the debate will continue; the account in Joshua is the clearest guide we possess to the establishment of an Israelite kingdom in Canaan.”


I will now refrain from further comment. Happy Thanksgiving.

Showing 25 comments
  • Suzanne

    Susan – You are truly a class act in your handling of criticism. I am very much looking forward to buying and reading your book!

  • Darcy Bunn

    Fortunately, all publicity is good publicity… of course good reviews sell better. I would interpret this one as “grudgingly complimentary.” I am looking forward to reading your series with my kiddies.

  • Laura in OH

    It looks like the reviewer needed to find at least one “con” to balance out all the “pros”. I find it interesting that the one mentioned is from a footnote, and not the main text…! Does that fall under constructive criticism or nitpicking?

  • Nicole

    This is really not a bad review. I would certainly expect less coverage for certain geographic regions, and the material that exists for these areas (Asia and India) is really hard to interpret and then condense for this type of book. (Just think, you get to try and make amends when the 2nd edition comes out!)

    Also, I have to say that the reviewer shows either a lack of understanding or personal bias (or both) in criticizing the portion of text you provided. I don’t have time to address all of the possibilities for that just now, but I believe it was unfair, especially since you acknowledged that the evidence is “inconclusive”. I think your wording made clear that there are other interpretations (which you are fully aware of), and that you weren’t trying to pull something over on your readers.

    Your interpretations are part of what will make the book readable and stand out. Who knows– maybe you will find that some are “simply wrong” with further research, but that’s why new editions are published.

  • Julie M. Smith

    The Joshua issue must really make you fume–I’m mad for you! What a gross misrepresentation!

  • Sandy

    I’ve enjoyed reading through the Story of the World series with my kids, TWTM, and TWEM… yes, I do love history, but I especially love books that make it a joy to study. I am really looking forward to this series regardless of grumpy critics:-)

  • Taj

    This review seems very positive to me overall. Unfortunately there are always people who refuse to accept the Bible as a “real” historical document. This may be why the reviewer nitpicked on a footnote. Don’t let them get you down. I would, however, start using my assistant as a “filter” for reviews if it were me. She can keep a file of them and you can read them all when you’re done with the series!

  • Lori

    I just think you rock, no matter what the reviewers say. I know so much about world history just from teaching my children out of your books and now from reading through my ARC of Volume I. If a person so choose, s/he may more thoroughly delve into topics of choice but most people don’t even get the big picture, so your books are a Godsend for that.

    This makes me think of when I was in therapy school and we were taught to critique studies that other psychologists had published. Some of them seemed so wonderful that it seemed impossible to find something wrong to point out. In the end, though, we were strongly encouraged to do so at the risk of sounding like lackies. I suppose it’s the job of a critic to be a critic. Too bad. We could use some encouragers along the way as well.

    Happy Thanksgiving back!

  • Mike

    I think the reviewer was fair. One can’t rely on the Bible as being an accurate account of history. I still intend to buy the book, however.

  • Kate CA

    The review actually made me more excited than I already was to read your book. It just goes to show you that what one person may see as a negative, others may well see as a positive.

  • Heather in AZ

    Try to ignore the splinters and rock on, Susan! 🙂

  • Laura C.

    Actually I’m really surprised the editor allowed this reviewer to show such blatant bias. Can the reviewer name a better source for this era and place in history. I doubt it.

  • Lizzy

    This is so interesting. I’m one of your lurking readers, who rarely blogs, but I just wanted to say, I agree that this was a good overall review. I usually disregard such obvious bias and I am already convinced that I would buy your book(s). So, even though this book is another of your (wonderful) spawn of mental fertility (I loved that entry!) please try not to take the criticism too personally. Keep crankin’ em out!

  • Kelli

    I read it as a good review. Don’t let it discourage you.

  • Diane

    All I can think of is the tower and how there are soooo many reasons it would be handy to have an isolated tower in one’s back yard (-:

    Just be like Gollum and declare “NOT LISTENING” to the naysayers.


  • Sherrill in WA

    Susan, I think that the secuular reviewer was forced to find the smallest possible “nit” to “pick,” just so that a “Christian” comment would not slide by him. I think that his bias is showing and your book was so incredible he had to admit it but threw in a jibe for good measure.

    If I were you, I’d focus on his concluding sentence instead. That one is accurate, and actually a very strong endorsement. You could get revenge by seeing if the last statement could be squeezed somewhere on the back jacket if it’s not too late . . .

    Don’t let this distract your fertile mind! ; ) Yes, I agree that maybe it would be wise to let your assistant look at the reviews, so that you can concentrate on developing the outline for Book 2. You don’t want anything to spoil your romp through Medieval times.

    Best wishes,

  • Christy B

    As someone who has been having a bit of a crisis of faith recently, I find it remarkably helpful to have a historian cite the Bible as our best and most accurate account of anything.

    Perhaps knowing that you have encouraged someone’s confidence in Scripture will take a bit of the sting out of the (slightly) negative comment?

    I don’t know a great deal about Official Reviews, but I agree with the other comments — it certainly appears to me that someone’s bias against scripture is showing.

  • Sylvia C.

    To me the reviewer is on the mark about that statement, which is after all separated by a semicolon, to distinguish it from the rest of the disclaimer. I enjoy your work, but I do notice that the biblical myths enjoy a special status in your children’s books, some are not even identified as myths. Like other problems inherent in wide-ranging Eurocentric histories, these things just have to be accomodated in teaching our children and in our own critical reading.

  • Susan

    I’m still trying not to comment, but none of the comments so far have touched on the real issue with this review, which is: Under what conditions does one say that a historian is “simply wrong”?


  • Blair

    It’s hard to comment without reading the book but our family has read and enjoyed your other books. The Story of the World series is my 9 year-olds favorite books. He is in the middle of volume 4.

    The review only gives one example of being “simply wrong”. Perhaps the critic is interpreting “clearest guide” to be a full-fledged verbatim endorsement even though you say the evidence is inconclusive.

    “Since the evidence is inconclusive, the debate will continue; the account in Joshua is the clearest guide we possess to the establishment of an Israelite kingdom in Canaan.”

    The review would probably be more useful to a reader if they just described your point-of-view. Saying that something in a history book is “simply wrong” could be said of just about every history book. But still, I think the review is quite positive.

  • Sandy Burr

    Another sometime-lurking reader here. The reviewer’s decision to cast one sentence out of context isn’t necessarily an indicator of a secular or of a non-Christian bias. Rather, it points up an intellectual carelessness that counts on readers not having access to the very paragraph that illuminates the so-called dread assertion. Heaven forbid that reviewers act responsibly, particularly when they work for esteemed publications. Susan, you were shafted by an idiot. I agree with the others that the review, overall, is quite positive, so don’t worry overmuch. Know, however, that I’m still angry at the reviewer who didn’t even read the book that Adam Potkay and I edited and then commenced to discuss how unnecesary our book was. Reviewers are a rascally breed.

  • Sebastian

    It really wasn’t a bad review. OK, the “just wrong” comment rankles, especially when it isn’t so clear what he is referring to. (It would seem that Joshua should be given as much attention as say, Homer or Gilgamesh. Even if you don’t think it is “true,” it seems odd to discount it when so many other oral traditions and mythical histories are looked to for the truth they contain.)
    At least you didn’t get the comment from one of dh’s books, that it was a valuable history “despite the author’s unconventional sentence structure.” Yeah, he’s a subordinate clause lovin’ guy.

  • Sandy Burr

    My husband is a historian, and he constantly deals with mainstream notions about “right” vs. “wrong” history. What many students, graduates, professionals, reviewers, and many, many other folks don’t realize or fail to grasp is that history is a narrative, or a story, that we tell ourselves about ourselves and about other people. That said, who or what someone said or did and how we interpret it tends to change across time–sometimes frequently. So, to answer your question, Susan–“Under what conditions does one say that a historian is ‘simply wrong’?”–my husband would say, it all depends upon the school of thought that you agree with. It would seem that the reviewer believes that there are, indeed, so-called right and wrong interpretations of history, hence the choice of rhetoric. My husband prefers the school that frames history within interpretations that carry varying degrees of legitimacy and validity based on a confluence of evidence. That’s the sweeping answer, at least, in dealing with historical interpretations. Many supposedly solid dates–take, e.g., the ending of the Revolutionary War in what would become the United States–are not, in point of fact, solid, for the interpretation depends upon who is ending what and where, something Revolutionary historians continue to disagree with each other about. Textbooks sold in huge public school districts in Texas and California aren’t in favor of waffly dates–surprise, surprise–so the oldest ideas about right and wrong history continue to be a mainstay in public schools across the country.

    “In addition, some of her assertions—for instance, that the biblical book of Joshua is the clearest guide we possess to the establishment of an Israelite kingdom in Canaan—contradict general scholarly opinion or are simply wrong.”

  • bethyada

    Given the reviewer’s anti-biblical bias, I think the review is quite positive.

    ~100 years ago Luke was thought to be careless, with increased discoveries he is now regarded as a much more accurate historian–perhaps the same would be thought of Joshua if we had contemporary writings.

    I’d ignore the minro negative comment and be encouraged.

  • Anderson

    I certainly can’t comment on the book, having checked it out from the library but not read it yet.

    But on the issue of whether and when a historian can be “simply wrong,” I did notice an online article on the British historian Andrew Roberts’ new book that gives some examples:

    If you believe in truth, then it seems to follow that “simply wrong” is a possibility — indeed, since we’re all fallible, it would be odd if *any* historian ever managed to avoid being “simply wrong.”

    (A very provoking aside for such a short review, I would add!)

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