Julian Barnes

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

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A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters Summary

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A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989), a collection of short historical stories by Julian Patrick Barnes, tells Earth’s story from biblical times to the 1980s. Critics praise it for its unusual and playful take on world history, making obscure historical events more accessible to general readers. A novelist, Barnes received his education at the City of London School and Merton College, Oxford. Before writing full-time, he worked as a critic, an editor, and a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. His brother, Jonathan Barnes, is an eminent philosopher.

A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters takes a postmodernist approach to world history. Although the stories within the collection stand alone, they are all linked through their connection to Noah’s Ark and the woodworms that boarded the Ark as stowaways. The woodworms, who claim to know exactly what happened aboard Noah’s Ark, reappear at various points throughout the book. They serve as a metaphor for decay and how our appreciation and understanding of history worsens over time. Too often, we forget history and what it can teach us, and the truth is lost forever.

The first story, “The Stowaway,” centers on the woodworms’ journey on Noah’s Ark. They lament that God and Noah chose to abandon them, leaving them to go extinct. Now that they are on the ship, they comment on how what they see is very different from typical modern accounts of Noah’s Ark. It reminds them of a prison cell, not paradise, and they question whether Noah was the right person for the job. They wish they could hijack the ship and turn it around.

In the second story, “The Visitors,” the narrative jumps forward to 1985; this time, someone does hijack a ship. Terrorists take over a luxury cruise liner and torment everyone on board. A man dies as the event descends into an international crisis. Barnes based the story on the real-life hijacking of MS Achille Lauro in 1985.

“The Wars of Religion” returns to the woodworms, putting them back into the spotlight. This time, they are charged with vandalizing a church by eating its foundations. Because of them, the church is unstable. Here, Barnes draws a connection between forgetting history and the erosion of faith and religion.

In “The Survivor,” Barnes takes readers into an alternate universe. In this universe, Earth’s first major disaster is the Chernobyl tragedy. Hysteria spreads and everyone thinks nuclear war is imminent. The protagonist in this story is so terrified that he runs as far away from society as he can get. He spends the rest of his life at sea; it is unclear whether nuclear war erupts.

“Shipwreck” focuses on the painting The Raft of Medusa. The narrator doesn’t like the painting very much because it sanitizes a tragic shipwreck. The picture doesn’t show the true horror of a shipwreck—instead, it glamorizes death and suffering for artistic effect.

“The Mountain” includes The Raft of Medusa as a talking point. In this story, a woman who visits a monastery in the mountains views the painting and reflects on its meaning. She then devotes her time to God and apologizing for the sins of others. Specifically, she wants God to forgive her father for whatever crimes he committed in life.

“Three Simple Stories” moves between an RMS Titanic survivor, Jewish refugees aboard the MS St Louis in 1939, and the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. These stories all consider what it is like to survive at sea when the odds seem stacked against one.

In “Upstream,” an actor heads to the jungle for filming. He doesn’t like the jungle because it is far removed from normal society, and it is unsafe. Knowing that the natives don’t like the film crew, the actor fears it is only a matter of time before they attack the camp. Although the natives don’t attack the film crew, one of the actor’s friends dies in a rafting accident during filming. The actor doesn’t know what to believe anymore.

Sandwiched between chapters eight and nine is the very short story “Parenthesis.” The narrator talks about love and how love gives us a reason to live. Without love, we don’t leave any lasting legacies behind. In this story, the narrator, calling himself “Julian Barnes,” directly addresses readers.

“Project Ararat” follows an astronaut sent to uncover the remains of Noah’s Ark. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will have real consequences for the world.

“The Dream” considers what happens when it’s all over and we die. It muses on what Heaven looks like and what it can teach us about life, death, and historical preservation.