on Nov 14, 2006
I don’t usually go in for non-fiction unless it’s technical books, but this one caught my eye: The Story of Civilization IV: The Age of Faith, by Will Durant. It is a fairly dense history that covers the period from 325AD to about 1300AD. You can’t cram that much stuff into a small volume, and Durant didn’t. This promises to be my longest read since Cryptonomicon. It’s good. My main complaint is that the sucker is so heavy it makes things uncomfortable.
This is going to echo my earlier comments on math class, but I never liked history class. This is not to say I don’t like history. It’s just that the various history classes focused on memorizing names of people and dates of events. I thought that was history right there: dates and names. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I started to absorb the various stories of history and found it suited me.
I’d blame the teacher, but this dates-and-names style of teaching was the focus of every history class I’ve ever had. This wasn’t just one sullen useless teacher bent on wasting everyone’s time: This was a systematic and institutionalized policy of making history dull and pointless. Reducing history to names and dates is like reducing poetry to authors and titles. History is not so much the who and the when as the how and the why. It’s much better to understand the economic conditions that led to Columbus getting funding for his trip than it is to know the exact year he set sail.
This book is Not Kidding Around when it comes to imparting historical knowledge, with context. I’m often amazed at just how much detail we have on the fourth century. Not just names of famous people, but dates of schooling, what subjects they pursued, who their friends were, and a host of other details. Okay, we’re talking about the Emperor of Rome, his friends, and other top-of-the-foodchain people, but still: It really is amazing just how much we know and how much we can extrapolate.
The book will cover the same time period from different perspectives. It starts off with 100 years of Roman politics, then backtracks and looks at what the church was doing during the same time period, then backtracks again and lets us in on what the Goths were up to. I find it hard to keep things together this way. Progress is slow because I have to glance back to the same time period in a previous section to remember what everyone else was doing.
Despite the detail, it’s obvious an incredible number of things are being left out. The years cruise by at an alarming rate, and every once in a while I get a glimpse of just how huge the whole story is and how little I’m seeing. I don’t know how else to describe the feeling – It’s a sort of temporal vertigo.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.