Hendrik Willem van Loon (1882-1944) was a Dutch-American historian and journalist. He reported on the 1905 Russian Revolution, and later became professor of history at Cornell University. He was a prolific writer of books, but his children's history book, The Story Of Mankind, is perhaps the best known. Since his death there have been many editions as the work has been constantly updated - originally by his son, then afterwards by other historians. It was first published in the US in 1921, and won the first John Newbery medal the following year. My own copy of this venerable book is the first British edition, published by George G. Harrap in September 1922.
The book begins like this. For some reason I've never been able to get these four simple but powerful sentences out of my mind since first reading them:
High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.
Beginnings (and endings and titles) of books are so important. The success or failure of a book can depend upon them - and I don't mean by this simply some clever marketing trick. Beginnings and endings and titles have a magical power either to draw you in or to exclude you for ever.
Talking of endings, I can't recall ever reading the ending of The Story Of Mankind. So I've just turned to it, and here it is:
'The more I think of the problems of our lives, the more I am persuaded that we ought to choose Irony and Pity for our assessors and judges as the ancient Egyptians called upon the Goddess Isis and the Goddess Nephtys on behalf of their dead. Irony and Pity are both of good counsel; the first with her smiles makes life agreeable; the other sanctifies it with her tears. The Irony which I invoke is no cruel Deity. She mocks neither love not beauty. She is gentle and kindly disposed. Her mirth disarms and it is she who teaches us to laugh at rogues and fools, whom but for her we might be so weak as to despise and hate.' And with these wise words of a very great Frenchman I bid you farewell.
Van Loon is quoting Anatole France here. All I can say is amen to the wisdom of it.