Durant – Some Light Reading

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Nov 14, 2006

Filed under: Random 17 comments

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.


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17 thoughts on “Durant – Some Light Reading

  1. MOM says:

    Makes me want to read it. Teaching history- The teachers have the job of creating the framework in which we can internalize the “stories”. We often remember and complain about “names and dates” history class, but they did present much more than that. I think history is just one of those disciplines that the groundwork has to be laid before we can internalize the significance of the information. Part of the groundwork is the experience of living. It is difficult for a 10 year old or 15 year old to imagine the motivations of people who populated the world in ages and cultures past. School age people only dimly perceive the motivations of their own parents! Remember special projects? Read a biography or draw a fort (or build one out of toothpicks). Maps? movies? You hated those too! Sigh.

  2. AngiePen says:

    The Romans were some of the most fanatical record keepers before modern times, so there’s a lot of info on them. A lot of it’s boring I’ll grant you, unless your specialty is mining data from tax records and census data, which I’ll grant does appeal to some folks in the profession. And I had an assignment to go through some medieval English household accounts once which was surprisingly fascinating. :) But yes, there’s a ton of data there about the Romans.

    And the parallel stories approach is really a great way to attack an era because it gives you so much context for what was going on and what the larger region looked like at that time. Rather than just following the Roman rulers and government from the founding through the last abdication in the west, I much prefer to look at what the peoples around them were doing, and same with other places and times. Sometimes keeping some notes for yourself can help — building sort of a timeline of people and events which strike your interest, can help. I know this is going back to the names-and-dates approach [duck] but when you have the story and the context then jotting down dates with associated names or events or inventions or whatever is more of a matter of memory-joggers, so when you’re reading the next chunk you can see that this person was around at the same time as that person, or this idea was written down at the same time that someone five hundred miles away was pondering something related, without having to page back to earlier chapters and spend fifteen minutes skimming, you know? I agree that names and dates as ends in and of themselves are pretty useless.

    If you come to enjoy reading about a number of different peoples in a single era, when you’re done with Durant check out The Spoils of Time by C.V. Wedgwood; she takes that approach too, dealing with various peoples in the same general era in each section. It gives great context and lets you come to see the world as an interlocking whole, rather than just individual civilizations in isolation. It’s nowhere near the same level of detail as Durant, but for a large-scale overview it’s very good.


  3. I haven’t read that one, but I’ve read the first three Durant books, and I read the last one (about the French revolution and Napoleon). They’re thick, no doubt about that. But Durant was a tremendous historian, and his wife was hugely important to his work and eventually was given credit as a coauthor.

    Talk about a happy marriage: they were married when she was 15, and remained married until they both died (within a week of one another) 68 years later.

  4. ScottM says:

    I’m also a big fan of parallel threads through time method of learning history. The first thread’s the trickiest, because everything else hangs on it as contrast… and if people don’t get it, then they’re setting themselves up for pain when the other threads try to contrast their experiences with the one you should already know.

    Glad you’ve found a book that has you excited.

  5. Bogan the Mighty says:

    That would be two of the best teachers I ever had were both history teachers. The first thing was that they brought the subject to a level that we can understand as a teenager even if that meant being the only two teachers in high school to swear. More than that though they taught it in a way that made you think about why people did what they did instead of who they were and when they did it. The world makes so much more sense when you can finally realize why its like it is instead of these people came here at this time. Anyway Heather went to Knoch right? Ask her about Mr. Rhinebolt, crazy man but I think he made more sense in his ramblings than most people give him credit and if nothing else he had a class you could stand to be in.

  6. Sam Robb says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading Larry Larry Gonick’s “Cartoon History of the Universe”:


    He’s not a Renaissance artist, but this is definitely a case where images + text makes things a lot more entertaining and memorable.

  7. GreyDuck says:

    Hmm. I may need to read this book. I may need to read all four.

    I’m a big fan of James Burke, who takes a very interconnected and holistic view toward the history of science and technology. If you’ve seen the TV series “Connections” (or my favorite, the generally-forgotten “The Day The Universe Changed”) you’re familiar with his shtick, and shtick it may be but it can open your eyes to how progress really comes about. Burke neatly punctures the idealized vision of the Lone Genius Scientist/Inventor who comes up with the great solution to a given problem (in some kind of intellectual vacuum) because he’s Just That Smart. Rather it’s almost always a case of complex pressures coming to bear on a series of seemingly-disparate individuals who contribute pieces to the puzzle, and the household name just sort of puts it all together in the right way at the right time.

    I now own several of Burke’s books and while I may not retain the entirety of the data within, I learn something about how to look at history every time I read. He plays a bit fast and loose with the facts on occasion in the name of a good story, but he’s trying to teach people a new way of looking at progress, so he gets a bit of license there. Burke is a journalist rather than an historian, after all.

    Anyway: I recommend checking out one of his books of essay collections, or find copies of one of his TV series.

  8. Shamus says:

    I do remember Connections – and you are right, it’s a schtick, but it’s enjoyable.

  9. There were a lot more than four books in the Durant series. The Age of Napoleon is volume 11. (The intro is fun; he says he hadn’t intended to write another volume, and blames its existence on tardiness of the visit by the Grim Reaper.)

  10. beckyzoole says:

    I love the entire Story of Civilization series! The Durants wrote 11 of them. I grew up with the set in the house, and learned much, much more from those books than from any history, civics, or art appreciation class at home. These books are a model of excellent non-fiction writing, too. Sometimes I deliberately try to copy the Durant style; I fail more often than not but it is still worth the try.

  11. Tallain says:

    Lies My Teacher Told Me is also a good history read.

  12. The only problem with LMTTM is that some of what it says is untrue. (I found out later.)

  13. Tallain says:

    And now I must find more books to read…

    I’ll try to pick this one up.

  14. Mitch H. says:

    What parts? It’s been a while since I’ve read Lies…

  15. AngiePen says:

    Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History books rock. [nodnod] I used to hand out photocopies to my students of the page where the Athenian teenager (was it Alcibiades…?) is talking to his father — it’s a perfect explanation of one of the real reasons why the citizens were so eager to get rid of Socrates. :D Gonick’s view of what happened and why is often out of date but it’s a great starting point and a fun read. His collaborations on other subjects are more hit-and-miss; Cartoon Guide to Genetics is great, and same with Cartoon Guide to Sex, but some of the other subjects really require a lot of memorization and math to get through, and although the explanations are very good, I found that there was just too much stuff to remember from one page to the next, to the next, to the next… and eventually my brain overloaded and went into emergency shutdown. The chemistry and statistics books particularly had that problem, especially statistics, and physics only slightly less so. There are reasons why textbooks on these subjects have pages and pages of exercises — you really need to internalize the process being explained before you go on to the next, and there’s no way to do that in the cartoon guides, at least for me, and I did take both chemistry and physics in school so although it’d been fifteen or twenty years, it was all review. Didn’t help. :/

    And another vote for James Burke’s work, although my favorite was The Day the Universe Changed. Connections was only a half hour show and it was a bit too shallow to really do a good job IMO. TDTUC was perfect — I watched most of the episodes two or three times. Connections 2 should’ve been good and it had an hour to work with too IIRC, but… I don’t know, it’s like he’s used all his really good material or something. [shrug] The man has a great way of thinking about history, though, and explaining it, particularly the history of technology.


  16. Wonderduck says:

    “…this one caught my eye: The Story of Civilization IV…”

    I will freely admit that, for a moment, I thought someone had written a book on the creation of the newest entry in Sid Meier’s game.

  17. Brock says:

    I really enjoyed “The Reformation” and “The Age of Voltaire” from the series, but found Durant’s humanism childish when he tried to evaluate the protestant reformers and their doctrines …

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