Arnold Toynbee's ten-volume analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations, A Study of History, is acknowledged as one of the greatest achievements of modern scholarship. "Of all the books published so far in this century," Clifton Fadiman once said, "the one most assured of being read a hundred years from now is A Study of History." The Los Angeles Times called it "a veritable masterpiece of erudition and one of the most suggestive, stimulating and inspiring studies of this age."
In The Study, Toynbee revolutionized the writing of history. By encompassing virtually all civilizations--the Egyptian, the Sumeric, the Mayan, the Iranian, the Japanese, the Hellenic, and the West, to name only a few--within the scope of his monumental work, he achieved the first all-embracing synthesis of world history. Before Toynbee, world histories were histories of the West, and only specialists wrote Babylonian, Arabian, or Aztec history. But Toynbee's scheme includes all nations and, more remarkably, by his emphasis on general patterns--on the genesis, growth and breakdown of civilizations--he was able to give a shape to this incredibly diverse material, making it comprehendable to the general reader.
And Somervell's Abridgement is also a masterpiece--a masterpiece of condensation. In only two volumes, he has captured the method, atmosphere, texture, and, in most instances, the very words of the original. By leaving out most of Toynbee's illustrations, digressions, and asides (some of which were quite lengthy indeed), Somervell has actually clarified the argument of the book. The reaction to his Abridgement, when the first volume appeared in 1947, was exceptional: it was an immediate success in America, and exerpts and articles on it appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Life, The New York Times Book sums it Review, Newsweek, and Time. The review in The Nation perhaps up best: "If [you] have time for only one book during this year--and the next and the next--Somervell's Abridgement...should be that book."