The Story of Civilization by the Durants: Yea or Nay?

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The Story of Civilization by the Durants: Yea or Nay?

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1cckelly
Editado: Nov 25, 2006, 9:02pm

Okay fellow Non fiction afficianados, I have a question about The History of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage through The History of Civilization: The Age of Napolean by the Durants. Have you read any of this 11 volume set?

Is this series worth acquiring and reading? It appears formidable, however, my S.O. is an avid history fan and this is one of his personal favorites. I'm a moderate history fan, and I do often read various text books for amusement but I'm more a science, medical or languages kind of girl. I am contemplating attempting this set both for the knowledge but also to understand my honey and the thoughts that shaped that beautiful mind of his I so admire.

Yet even with my vast appetite for reading, and a tolerance for text other people have labeled "dry", I must admit, 11 volumes at approx. 1000 pages each gives me a bit of a pause. Is it well written and engaging enough to attempt?

2Hanno
Nov 26, 2006, 2:05am

Isn't it quite outdated by now?

3Linkmeister
Nov 26, 2006, 3:24pm

Confession: I own it because I thought I "should" buy it. I got it as one of the freebies for joining the Book-of-the-Month Club back in the 1970s.

I've tried to read it several times, starting at the beginning. Hasn't worked. I suggest that's its better used as a somewhat useful reference tool to get an overview of a particular period.

4KromesTomes
Nov 27, 2006, 1:49pm

I found an old set of 10 of the 11 books at a used book sale for $10 total, then filled in the missing volume later ... like Linkmeister above, I though I "should" have a set ... frankly, I now use them as "bathroom reading!"

5undilla Primeira Mensagem
Nov 27, 2006, 10:08pm

Seniornet.org has had a discussion running on The Story Of Civilisation for the last 5 yrs. They start on Renaissance on Dec 3rd and are looking to introduce it to new readers. it's not a class, just people sitting around their lounge giving their opinions and thoughts. People dip and out as their lives change, so they always hope for new readers.

6cckelly
Nov 29, 2006, 3:53am

Thank you for the comments. Bathroom reading...hmm...from the sheer size of this collection I have to wonder if one could ever spend enough time in the bathroom to make a dent?

7KromesTomes
Nov 29, 2006, 8:16am

cckelly: ... not yet!

8wildbill
Editado: Jun 1, 2007, 12:27pm

I have read six of the volumes and found them enjoyable and interesting. I read a lot of Chinese history and found the section in China in Our Oriental Heritage to be the least useful section in the set. The information is inaccurate and dated. The set is not written for scholars and is based largely on secondary sources. There is an emphasis on cultural history that sets the books apart from standard narrative history. I recommend the set. The volumes are very informative, a joy to read and a good value for the price.

9BarbLLM
Jan 20, 2007, 9:51pm

I don't have the full 11 volumes, but I have seven of them that I bought from an estate sale many years ago. I've found them to be an excellent reference tool for the most part.

10timspalding
Jan 20, 2007, 10:37pm

Nay!

11benjfrank
Mar 21, 2007, 12:55am

Like linkmeister, I own a set because I thought I "should". That and Kendall Hailey made it a character in her "The Day I Became an Autodidact" book. I still have the complete set...in boxes in the garage. Never read more than 20 pages total, but oddly, until now, never thought that was strange.

12gmork
Maio 25, 2007, 9:13am

#2 The first volume has a chart about the Descent of Man that includes the Piltdown Man in "our" family tree. So, yes it is dated. (At least the copy in my local library does, and that was a reprint from the early '60s, long after the Piltdown Man had been exposed as a fraud.)

Having said that, I don't think there's a multi-volume survey of world history that can credibly knock it from its perch as being the best of its kind. Perhaps someday. And compare to something like Toynbee it is a breeze to read.

13varielle
Jun 6, 2007, 8:25am

I also acquired my set as my freebie from BomC. Since I was a history major I thought I should also have them. I also attempted to read them several times and found them to be a terrible, terrible bore. After dragging them around for over 20 years I finally sold them on E-Bay.

14DromJohn
Editado: Jun 6, 2007, 9:09am

I have all 11 and have read 1-10.
Durant's a good writer, and they flow.
Above all, they are a survey.
Read them for general background and to connect dots. Read someone else for a particular interest.

IOW, if you have a bunch of Reformation books, you do not need Durant's The Story of Civilization The Reformation. But if you want one book, Durant is good enough to be that one.

And since probably only a handful of Thingers have enough other books to cover all 11, and since the set is an inexpensive acquisition, then I recommend the set.

15DromJohn
Editado: Jun 6, 2007, 9:16am

OTOH, it does bug me that Durant and Robert E. Howard dominate my user affinities, and I wouldn't put either on the top half of my favorite authors. It's just that if you own a Durant or Howard, you tend to have many.

16cckelly
Jun 15, 2007, 3:56pm

Thanks for the info. I like the idea of it being a good survey to "connect the dots". Since I just attempted my first foray into 17th century Russian aristocracy and found it horribly tedious because I knew so few of the obscure names often cited and used to expand on the character of the Russian aristocrat being described, I suddenly realized why people who read history read so much on so many different subjects. You need touchstones or half of what you read by a knowledgeable historian is like a foreign language.

Btw, the S.O. stated that until he's settled and buys another house (he's been renting since his divorce several years ago) he's waiting to recollect them and instructed me NOT to buy them for him. He says they deserve a permanent library room in which to live. So, I suppose I'll put this on hold until then...it's not like my TBR list isn't long enough without them:)

17rocko
Jul 18, 2007, 9:05pm

I have all 11 and have read them all. I started collecting The Story of Civilization because I remembered it from my parents library. It took five years but I was not in a hurry. I still refer to the set every so often. The accuracy is not a big issue for me. I enjoy the story.

18dgroberts
Ago 7, 2007, 10:14pm

I have, over the years, read a number of books in Durant's series on World Civilization. Granted they are old - especially the first half of the series, but, old or not, I think they are worth reading - as long as you realize what Durant is saying is not the last word in modern historical scholarship.

When the Rome series came on HBO, I got out his volume on Rome Caesar and Christ, but I'll admit I couldn't get into it at all. I gave up after about 30/40 pages. I thought this was odd because I read a number of the others in the series and found them well worth while. Something about the Rome volume seemed like I had walked into the 3rd act of a play. The book just didn't click.

19BGP
Set 5, 2007, 6:43pm

Yea! I have only read the first volume, and while some of his arguments are, indeed, dated, the book itself was quite enjoyable. I do not know when I will have the time to read the entire series, but there is little doubt that, at some point in my life, I will attempt to fit them into my schedule...

20enevada
Set 6, 2007, 9:53am


Yea! The Durants became surrogate grandparents for me (I never knew mine) and I would read and re-read the set throughout adolescence. I still keep one or two on my bedside table, very comforting. They are old school humanists – that is, great champions of Western Enlightenment – but they have a deep respect for other traditions, as well.

Polite scholarship. I rather miss it.

21ABVR
Set 15, 2007, 9:01pm

Nay! (For me . . . but Durant & Durant seems to be one of those works that some people adore reading and others, like me, find to be a long, hard slog. No way of knowing which category in until you try it.)

That said . . .

The Rise of the West by William McNeill does for met what Durant & Durant seem to do for some people. I read it as a novice teacher of world history survey courses, and it blew my mind. Still does. It's also about 1/12 the length of Durant & Durant. :-)

22vivienbrenda
Set 17, 2007, 11:05am

I gave it to my son for his 14th birthday many years back. He seemed to be interested in history and he loved to read. I'll never forget the disappointed expression on his face when he saw it, and decades later it's still the center of many Thanksgiving laughs. The set looked so nice in his bookcase; I doubt he ever cracked one open. I looked at them once in awhile, but never got into them. I don't know if it helps, but it seems to me your question has been around for a long, long time.

23wildbill
Set 17, 2007, 11:19am

The Rise of the West was one of the first history books I read that tried to analyze and explain the course of history. I first read it in my late teens. The Durant's write a story. They do it well and I have read many of their volumes. William McNeill analyzed history and why things happened as they did. One of the themes of his book was the constant tension between the sedentary civilizations and the herding peoples, such as the Mongols. He showed how the course of history was influenced by the constant fighting on the boundary between the two types of civilizations. There were other similar themes in his book that made history a story that had reasons. He emphasized the importance of geography and available resources in the development of civilizations. Many of the ideas he used were amplified in Guns, Germs and Steel. McNeill also wrote Plagues and Peoples and The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A. D. 1000. These volumes also provide analysis over and above the simple telling of the story of history.

24undeadgoat
Out 12, 2007, 6:22pm

Probably the most entertainment I have ever gotten out of my mother's Durant & Durant set (I had to laugh when I read #3 -- this is exactly how my mom got hers, although I assume it was sometime in the 80s, i.e. when she had her own place but before I was born) is reading the "projected future volumes" in various volumes and seeing how it had changed. That said, I have read most of Caesar and Christ (the bit about Jesus was seriously weird, so I skipped it) and about half of Age of Faith. Age of Faith now forms the rock-solid base on which my pile of "Books to read" is built. I have a feeling I may not get around to it before I move out of my parents' house, but you never know, they might suspend my library card or something.

25HoraceSPatoot
Editado: Out 13, 2007, 11:36am

#18

I have to say that I was exactly the opposite. I picked up Caesar and Christ from the series first and couldn't put it down. I think maybe that my high school Latin made the history of Rome so dry that I was amazed how interesting it could be when explained by Will Durant. I was so interested that I immediately launched into Tacitus and Suetonius and a few others. I have since read large sections of some of the others.

In brief, I'm glad I have the set, I sometimes use it as reference recognizing its limitations, I absolutely love Will and Ariel Durant's insight and writing style, which in my opinion are timeless, and I recommend that, rather than starting at the beginning, one should pick an era they are interested in and begin there.

26rufustfirefly66
Out 13, 2007, 4:29pm

For it's time, and it's approach, it's okay. Maybe it's time for a series like it that's more up to date and includes the Americas. Any history writers out there?

27drneutron
Out 14, 2007, 2:17pm

I just started The History of the Ancient World (the 2006 revised edition) by S. Wise Bauer. So far it's pretty good. Now I'll have to go through the whole series...

28LamSon
Editado: Jan 7, 2008, 8:31pm

cckelly - The Durant series is a monumental reading challenge. I would suggest reading the Will Durant book The Lessons of History first to see if you like his writing style. I have reread this book several times, but have yet to tackle the full 11 volumes.

29alcottacre
Jan 6, 2008, 6:55pm

I like the set as a starting point. I read the whole series, which then pointed me to different books to read and so on.

30gwavar
Jan 9, 2008, 2:49pm

Personallt, I think enevada in #20 hits it right on the head - "old school humanists."

Among the academicians (I took graduate courses in history), they are not very well regarded. Will's field was philosophy and another interest literature. The "history" part of the series they got from secondary sources and, my professors complained, sources that were old even when they used them.

A specialist will find erroneous or at least questionable data on every page.

Even the books' most attractive feature - they are quite well-written and full of gracefully turned phrases - makes academicians uncomfortablle, They susoect that a graceful phrase too often distorts for the sake of its grace.

So why did I buy two sets of them, one for my home and one for my mother's home where I vacationed?

First, their length allows them to dig pretty deeply into the life of an era. The cover much more than war and politics "rulers and soldiers." They write about how people lived when they weren't politicking or fighting. That's fascinating.

Second, when you want to read more about something or someone that you'll find in an encyclopedia artticle or a one-volume survey history, they've got it.

Third, I'm a sucker for a well turned phrase.

Fourth, on subjects where you're not a specialist - which is most subjects, isn't it - you can learn something from them. In my college days (the 60's), they gave me my first intimation of the scope and sophistication of classic Islamic civilization.

They're probably better for "dip and read" on topics that interest you than for slogging through the whole thing. Certainly, don't take them as gospel. Think of them as impressionists, not hyper-realists. If the exhaustive detail exhausts you, move on. But if you find them enjoyable -- enjoy. (I sure do.)

31mstrust
Maio 14, 2008, 5:01pm

Yea! #20 and #30 said it well. Durant wrote about cultures as people rather than objects.
I have never attempted to read them from start to finish though. Rather, I pick a topic and jump in and out. Very enjoyable!

32wildbill
Maio 15, 2008, 10:08am

The Durant series is very useful for reading topically. I have read a number of the volumes and found them very good. I particularly enjoyed the volumes 8-11 that go from Louis XIV to Napoleon. They give a good narrative of the period and gave me a good outline of the events of the French Revolution and the before and after. I think the main weakness of the books are their reliance on secondary sources. They don't meet the standards of real scholarship for that reason. I also recommend Durant's The Story of Philosophy. It is a good introduction to Western philosophy that is accessible to the lay reader.

33xenchu
Maio 16, 2008, 10:32pm

I had a history professor in college who absolutely sneered at the books and the Durants. I have some of them but have never picked them up to read.

34LamSon
Maio 18, 2008, 1:07pm

The Durant books are old and are victims of all historical writing -- the discovery of new information. So no doubt there are a number of things wrong.

The fact that they are looked down on by academics may be nothing more then self-righteous arrogance by the history profession. Anything not from the select few is declared junk.

If someone reads all or part of the series and becomes hooked on history what is the harm? Msg#32 sums it up when he/she says the books 'gave me a good outline...'

35padorothyk
Jan 25, 2010, 12:10pm

I listened to all (12) volumes in about an eighteen month period mostly while I was in hard science graduate program. The audio version is read by Alexander Adams who does a great job with the Durants' text. Listening to this series became the grown-up version of a story-book time for me: soothing, predictable, and with some lesson to be learned. Volume one definitely has some inaccuracies and opinions which irked me. I don't think I had that problem with the subsequent volumes. Besides the obvious breadth of their knowledge, the Durants' imaginations, their assumptions and opinions, are what make these books so intellectually engaging. The prose, and Alexander Adams, helped me get through all twelve volumes like they were butter.

36zette
Jan 25, 2010, 3:08pm

My husband and I have both read and enjoyed the books. In fact, it was a joke with many of our friends that we had two sets when we first married.

The books are an admirable overview of the history they cover and the prose is excellent and readable. I approached the series at 20 pages a day (something I do with many multi-volume works, including the Cambridge Ancient History -- read almost all before my library got screwy and I couldn't get the last few -- and Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia). I was never bored and always looked forward to reading more. I think that sometimes people try to approach sets like this as though they need to rush through them. In this case, I think it is better to go slow and savor the work. Choose a number of pages you are comfortable with, and read other things as well.

Both my husband and I have talked about re-reading them. Unfortunately, we gave one set away, so this might cause a bit of conflict. (grin)

37etsmith
Mar 1, 2010, 5:54pm

I inherited this series and have read sections of it from time to time. It is extremely useful as a reference book--well indexed, well-written and a pleasure to read. However, for all but the most maniacal history lover, it would be tough sailing straight through.

38zette
Mar 1, 2010, 6:32pm

I had never thought of myself as a 'maniacal history lover' but you know -- I think you're right. (grin)

39cakecop
Editado: Abr 1, 2020, 12:51pm

I read all of them in 2019 and enjoyed it. I'm making a video for YouTube with a review of the Story of Civilization.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gfi5WWnAS5k&t=2057s