Starting The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant is perhaps the second best thing I’ve ever done in my life. The first being showing up at The Knights Hall just under 3 years ago. I’ve only made it through 2 and half of the 11 volume series but I can say with confidence I’ve gained more from it than any 5 other books I’ve read. The scope of the work is vast, the beginning of agriculture to the end of Napoleon covering the entirety of western civilization. It’s focus is wide, choosing breadth of subjects of depth. The Durants take us through every possible cross-section of life in this massive work, Crime, Economy, Art, Architecture, Music, Theater, Literature, Politics, Military, Daily Life, Language, Religion, Philosophy, Schooling, Trade, and at least a dozen more categories. It’s a huge work worthy of being read simply for the fact it gives a complete overview of the collective western past.
It obviously is lacking in some coverage and there are more than a few factual errors. Then again unless you are a history scholar its likely whatever history education you’ve gotten is just as bad. Probably worse. This is the history you were supposed to get in high school, the summary of western life. Most of us lack a good high level understanding of where our civilization came from and this book delivers that and more.
However it’s not the information, the breadth, depth, or accuracy of facts that make this book so worthwhile. The analysis of people, events, and literature is insightful but even that could be gotten somewhere else, probably better. What makes this book so crucial is the prose. Durant is a masterful writer in his own right. He deserves mention in the same breadth of the brilliant wordsmiths he is so often quoting. His writing alternates between witty, sarcastic, and earnest. Its never dull, always lively. He selects brilliant passages to quote and makes more than a few of his own. He clearly loves his subject and you can feel his passion on the page. His words flow with the honest praise of a man who understands his subject and believes in it.
I could probably keep going for a few pages with praise but that would get boring. I could quote specifics by why ruin the words by pulling them from the context that gives them such meaning? Bottom line is find a copy of one of the works. Doesn’t matter which one, just pick the one that covers the area you are most interested in. If you don’t have an area of interest you could start at the beginning or I personally find Caesar and Christ to be amazing. So go, grab a history book and find out how fun it can be.