I recently ordered a very reasonably priced used copy of The Encyclopedia of World History, now edited by Peter N. Stearns but based on many earlier editions by William L. Langer. I vaguely remember hearing mention of a book referred to only as “Langer” and my roommate, who introduced me to the work, explained that some professors use the book for reference. They recommended it to him as a handy source to check dates etc. and even, apparently, hinted that this mysterious “Langer” book might be handy to use when preparing for PhD oral exams.
With PhD oral exams only precious weeks away for both my roommate and I, the desperate race is on to synthesize all our notes, remember the various arguments made by the many authors we have read, and read, skim or read reviews of any straggler works on each of our four book lists that we were supposed to have read ages ago but haven’t even looked at yet. While my examining advisors seem to be most interested in “big picture” questions, broad narratives, and problem-based discussions rather than wanting to use the rite of passage known as “orals” to check our memory of dates and details, we still have to know the facts. It wouldn’t do for me to place the Kwangju massacre in April 1960, for example. The facts are, as one of my old professors described it with an unusual laundry metaphor, “the clothes pins upon which we hang the sheets of history.” Enter tools such as the personally compiled timeline, people lists, and books like this encyclopedia which, except for a few topical essays, resembles a massive thousand page timeline.
Unfortunately, when I look through books like this, I just can’t resist the urge to go “meta” and look at them from a critical perspective. It is especially tempting for chronologies, dictionaries and encyclopedias since they have the tendency to magnify all the historiographical issues by virtue of their more acute need to condense, abridge and generalize. I have a lot of sympathy for those who work on compiling such volumes as I am sure it is no easy task. However, if I had the time, and I’m already on borrowed time writing this entry, I would love to discuss some of the broader issues of a work like this such as its distribution of world events, the almost complete domination of political and military history, the consequences of using a national history category approach (though to its credit, the encyclopedia does a lot of cross-referencing when multiple categories have bearing upon events), and the tendency to portray history as a series of distinct events rather than showing trends and continuities across time or describing structural elements.
This evening I read through the approximately 5 pages dedicated to the topic of “Korea (North and South), 1945-2000″ among a total of over one thousand pages of world history in this encyclopedia (p1028-1033). That is actually not that bad in terms of space provided, all things considered. Korea has certainly done better than postwar Mongolia (1/3 page, 8 event entries). Also, it did better than postwar Japan (about 3 pages). This is easier to understand when we note that the period of the Korean War from 1950-1953 takes up a full page worth of entries (with lots of cross-referencing to US entries, and one link to China when it intervenes). Korea also does well when compared to postwar coverage of Europe. All of peaceful postwar Scandinavia gets about 4.5 pages, Poland just over 4, Greece about 2, and only large powers like Russia (12 pages + a full page map) get significantly more space for the postwar.
What I wanted to leave the reader with today, however, is that there is an almost complete absence of North Korea in those five pages of entries. It serves as a reminder of just how little scholarship about, knowledge of, and perhaps interest in North Korea there was when this edition of the encyclopedia came out in 2001.