For a start, it seems almost preposterously grandiose to attempt a distillation of the whole busy catalogue of human affairs into a drab, neutral index of what-happened-when. It is quite old-fashioned, apart from anything else, to have such faith in mere dates as a system for classifying knowledge. It works all right in the volume on ancient history, where the story of Rome - being the only show in town - can be read as an almost uninterrupted chronological narrative. But the modern world is larger and more productive of news; it is no longer possible to divine a coherent story in the deluge of disparate events.
Nor are we confident any more that causes and effects follow one another in anything like a neat or legible manner. The Darwinian, Freudian, modernist 20th Century suspects that life is full of unalterable impulses on the one hand, and random mishaps on the other. Perhaps this is why so many contemporary novels fidget impatiently with time's inexorable, A to B plod.
Come to that, the first thing you notice is that the clock does not run smoothly, even here. The last 10 pages describe a single year - 1992 - but in the primordial world time flies: the first 10 pages cover 7,000 years. This contrast between the beginning and the end of the world is one of the book's most entertaining features. Among recent events mentioned are the 40th anniversary of the Queen's accession, the broadcasting of Pole to Pole by Michael Palin, the publication of The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening and the winding up of Aldershot Football Club. There are also categories such as sport, popular music, scholarship, architecture and science, none of which were on the national curriculum in the 100th Century BC.
Back then, the events that made the headlines were pretty major: Ice Melts in Northern Hemisphere; Britain Falls off Europe - things like that. Boats are invented, dogs are domesticated, wine is discovered, and mesolithic people come up with arrowheads, fish- hooks, baskets, pots and even the bow and arrow, with its modern sounding 'microlith' flint tip. The world's first protective wall is built in 6800 BC around Jericho - a sure sign that 'organised raiding and warfare' has been invented.
Organised raiding and warfare turns out to have been one of the truly great inventions, a perennial favourite, a classic. In 1792 BC, the Babylonians invade Assyria; three and a half thousand years later, Iraq invades Kuwait. Plus ca change. These books are not gratuitous, but the history of the world very nearly qualifies as an encyclopaedia nasty.
Fortunately, bloodshed occupies only one half of the book. The left-hand pages display significant events, mainly wars, and the right-hand ones are reserved for 'achievements': art works, buildings, inventions, philosophical ideas and so on. It would be too simplistic to say that the left half of the book is boy's history - all potted dates of battles, invasions, revolts, uprisings, riots and conferences - but this is rather what it feels like. And there is so little narrative colour that it becomes, after a while, awful to contemplate. Time after time enormous upheavals, accompanied by unguessable torments, are reduced to sober entries in a ledger. In 1038 Bratislava of Bohemia sacks Cracow and Gniezno in a plundering raid into Poland, and then grabs Silesia. In 871 Charles the Bald suppresses a revolt by his son, whom he then blinds, and the Danes hit London.
It is no coincidence that these examples come from the early middle ages (Volume II). Summarised in miniature, these certainly do emerge, in Europe at least, as dark: dark with blood. Indeed it is quite touching to see occasional glimpses of a more refined life elsewhere. In 1156, for example, Reynald of Chatillon, Prince of Antioch, and Thoros of Armenia ravage the Greek island of Cyprus, William of Sicily defeats Greek forces outside Brindisi and seizes Bari, and Henry II puts down his brother Geoffrey's revolt in Anjou. In gentle Japan, meanwhile, Henchun Seiken puts the finishing touches to Ko-yo-sho, his treatise on perfumery.
If we flick back a few pages (a couple of centuries) we find Otto of Germany busy ravaging the Wends, while in Persia Al-Masudi, the Herodotus of the Arabs, was publishing a dictionary that included the earliest known description of windmills, and also mentioned horse-racing and tennis. Presumably, in those happy far-off days, scholars and poets sat around in Babylon and Egypt and talked, with forlorn, what-can-you-do expressions, about sending aid to Third World countries like England and France.
In many reference books, the most authentic pleasures are available only to the browser. But the editors of these volumes have been so strict with themselves that tourists are, on the whole, poorly rewarded. It is of course a tribute to the versatility of history that the birth of Christ is entered as 4 BC. There is a nice deadpan sentence about the theory of war in 202 BC: 'At Zama the Romans found ways of combating the East's favourite tactical weapon, the elephant.' And it is interesting to see how many petty feuds dominated the arts of ancient Rome: 'Nero was said to be jealous of Britannicus for having a better singing voice.'
But in the main the book really is designed for those who have forgotten what date the Battle of Edgehill was, or exactly when Queen Victoria came to the throne. In this modest role it is brilliantly successful, and it is marvellous to think of the sheer bureaucratic energy that must lie behind the project, but one can't help wishing for more. Perhaps, now that it is available on CD-ROM, the entries can expand into stories rather than mere bits of knowledge.
As for the books, perhaps their most plausible future is as a research bank for trivial pursuits. It would be fun, for instance, to imagine how the literary prizes would have worked out. In 1864 - while U S Grant was slogging it out with Robert E Lee in the murderous Virginia woods - the Booker would have been won by Charles Dickens for Our Mutual Friend (not his best, but the judges felt he was unlucky not to win for Great Expectations a few years earlier); and the Independent Award for Foreign Fiction would surely have gone to Leo Tolstoy for War and Peace. A dud year, as the Victorian television pundits would no doubt have said.