The Story of Civilization by the Durants: Yea or Nay?
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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?
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.
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.
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.
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:)
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.
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.
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. :-)
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.
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.)
I have never attempted to read them from start to finish though. Rather, I pick a topic and jump in and out. Very enjoyable!
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...'
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)