A Million Years in a Day, by Greg Jenner (2015)
In 2015, Greg Jenner released his much-anticipated first book, entitled A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Daily Life From the Stone Age to the Phone Age. As the self-titled ‘chief nerd’ of the BBC’s Horrible Histories, it is unsurprising that Jenner’s first book would discuss the weird and wacky points associated with what, to us, is a daily routine. Having completed his undergraduate and MA degrees at the University of York, Jenner went on to work as a Historical Consultant for a variety of historical dramas and documentaries – where he once almost managed to find enough evidence to suggest that Elizabeth I did have a secret love child! Throughout his time working on Horrible Histories, Jenner has ensured the factual accuracy of over 1600 sketches and brought joy to thousands of men, women and children, a big feat to follow in a book. However, it is a pleasure to say that Jenner’s first book has been an absolute joy to read – accessible, interesting, and funny, it brings the realities of our daily routine to life. From start to finish, Jenner is well aware of his book’s purpose, and it clearly shines in every chapter.
Every chapter in A Million Years in a Day is dedicated to a different element of the daily routine. From waking up, to taking the family dog for a walk, to going to bed, Jenner’s self-constructed day isn’t necessarily the norm – yet all topics are things that all humans do on a regular basis. Particularly interesting is the way that Jenner structures each chapter: it begins with a brief summary of what the chapter is about, written in the second person. For example, chapter two begins, “having dragged ourselves out of bed, we suddenly feel the pressing pangs of hunger as we wander past the kitchen…and so, off we scurry to the …well, what do you call it?” Starting each chapter like this allows a sense of continuity from the previous chapter, whilst also reminding the reader that the book is about our daily routines.
Furthermore, the structure within each chapter is particularly useful. When discussing a different element of the topic, or a different historical time period, Jenner uses sub-headings to distinguish between his chapter’s foci. This helps the reader to remain focused on the subject matter; it was also a handy tool to help the reader pause in a chapter at any given point. It also allows Jenner’s prose to become a lot more focused on the period of history discussed within the sub-section; each chapter deals with the topic at hand from the beginning of human history up until the present, and the clear sub-setting of each historical period/location helps the reader to stay focused.
Tied with this, it was appreciated that Jenner discussed history via themes, rather than time periods or geographical localities. This helped bring together literally a million years of history from across almost the entire globe; rather than being Eurocentric – or even Anglocentric – Jenner ensured that his history of the daily routine was a secure World History of everyday life, rather than just the history of the Britons.
Jenner clearly has a very strong grasp of who his target audience was in writing this book. The prose is understandable throughout, and Jenner uses a variety of methods to make the content accessible to people of all ages, and all levels of historical knowledge. This can be seen through the use of the vernacular throughout the book, as opposed to stilted prose in some academic pieces, as well as the various sub-sections within the book. These allow more distracted readers to take a break without losing where they are in the chapter, particularly in some of the more difficult topics.
This accessibility does not limit Jenner’s audience, however. As a history graduate, it was an enjoyable read, filled with information that was previously unknown. Jenner also manages to discuss historiography, and types of history, within the book, making it more than just a book of facts; it is truly an academic, well-researched piece of work.
Across Time and Space:
Particularly enjoyable about A Million Years in a Day is the fact that it offers a truly global understanding of the history of daily routines. From ancient Babylon, to ancient China, to modern Japanese customs, Jenner’s book circumvents the oft-criticised Euro-centric views of history to highlight the highs and lows of social history. Jenner’s comments are often tongue in cheek, and there’s inherent suggestions throughout that, perhaps, if we’d have listened to the ancient Asian world a bit more, things would have developed sooner.
Also enjoyable in this book is the negation of the idea that all history has been a progression, and that things are vastly better than in, say, the Roman period. Indeed, Jenner opens the book with the notion that we should not consider pre-historic peoples to be barbaric idiots – we have more in common than we think. The previously discussed chapter structure helps to facilitate the highs and lows of human history – with each segment, Jenner can show whether a particular period saw a development or regression in this topic. Which, for the most part, was generally a regression.
As discussed, the book is written primarily in the vernacular, allowing greater understanding from younger readers and those less interested in “academic” history. The only issue with the book is that it is not footnoted; instead, Jenner has provided a select bibliography at the back, for readers who might wish to know more about a particular field. This is understandable, given the audience and the purpose of the book, yet it would be nice to know where to find some of the primary sources Jenner has used!
The use of colloquial language throughout the book makes the book very readable; it is not a chore to read Jenner’s book, instead the sentences flow with ease and clarity. It is also useful for when Jenner explains difficult concepts, such as the various changes involved in standardising time across Britain; time is not spent googling difficult words, but instead on reading the clear explanations. The book is open and inviting to all readers, though perhaps some quotes are best left out of undergraduate essays!
In this book, Jenner has shown the relevance of history to our everyday lives; he has shown that history is not just the story of monarchs and politicians, but of ourselves, and what it is to be human with a daily routine in life. This book opens up history – and the idea of what history is – to a wider audience. History is not simply the stories of kings and queens, of foreign wars and invaders, but rather the sum of everything that we do today. All actions we take, be it on a daily basis or more infrequently, have a long, sometimes tedious, history which shows the evolution of thought across the history of the human race. Jenner’s book brings this long, complex history back down to earth, and also reminds us that history isn’t necessarily that scary or different. People who we may think we have very little in common with, actually, turn out to not be so different to ourselves. A Million Years in a Day is a concise, thought-provoking book which makes the idea of history more accessible to all, and teaches even the most diligent of historians that there is always something more to learn.
Written by Victoria Bettney