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Paul Johnson is a journalist turned historian. He is an excellent writer, meaning, he writes well. Given his age and education in England, he is going to form a killer sentence. He explains his theories well and gives a great narrative flow to his take on forces of history.
This book is not for everyone. It should be read widely, but given current trends in academia, it will not be. This is the opposite of A People's History of the United States. That is going to enrage some people and please others. But it is just one more voice speaking and should be heard. His grasp of history (going back to antiquity) is astonishing and seemingly nonchalant. It is amazing what he references. This is more of a history-as-biography as opposed to ideological concepts. Johnson believes history is made by individuals. And you get them in all arenas, political, ideological, and artistic.
This is a history of the western world from the 1920s (he posits that the confirmation of Einstein's theory is the beginning of the "modern" age) through the 1990s. The book derides moral relativism, defends Nixon, hates Communism, and describes the 1960s as "America's Suicide Attempt".
But he backs his theories up with abundant facts. There are some errors in the book, which is going to happen in a book this large. I do not feel they detract from the overall thesis. It is a great companion to his "A History of the American People". (The audio, which I have, is done by Nadia May, too.) A knowledge of Latin phrases is helpful.
Johnson has opinions and is not afraid to share them. I consider this more honest than a lot of histories that I read. (Read Rick Perlstein's arrogant Nixonland, and be astonished by his inherent venom toward Nixon and the implicit belief one would agree with him.) At least Johnson is explicit. You don't have to agree with him, but he presents his argument lucidly. Modern Times is therefore not objective, but what book is? He is a very religious man and blames the 20th century's "death of God" for things like fascism, Nazism, Communism, and the every-increasing power of the state filling in the vacuum left by religion. It is a book which praises the individual and not groups. His disdain for "-isms" is because they go after races, classes, groups, but does not create wealth. Johnson is an ardent capitalist.
Modern Times is also hilarious. I am not sure whether Johnson is intentionally funny or just writes so well that you find yourself laughing when he hits the nail on the head, but I laughed a lot. (If you are new to Johnson, check out his three-hour interview on C-Span's "In Depth" first. You'll get an idea from where he comes and might find the humor I did.)
This book is by a strong writer and historian and does not invite passive reading (or listening). His statements invite you to argue back, to put the book aside and ruminate on passages and theories, to get angry, to laugh. Not a bad feat.
Here is a good example. Johnson believes Lenin is the primogeniture of the horrors of the 20th century, "'Once Lenin had abolished the idea of personal guilt, and had started to 'exterminate' (a word he frequently employed) whole classes, merely on account of occupation and parentage, there was no limit to which this deadly principle might be carried. There is no essential moral difference ... between destroying a class and destroying a race. Thus the practice of genocide was born.''
Naida May is a very competent narrator. She does have a difficult time with some foreign words and phrases, as well as some names. It can be distracting at times. I think the book is better with a female voice. I also think she gets the humor of many of the passages and hits a few punchlines. The English accent also helps.
I have this both in hard copy and as an audio book. I would argue that this is a difficult book to listen to because it so easily makes one think. Next thing you know, five minutes passed without you having listened to them. This is a book of breathtaking scholarship and insight. Enjoy.
27 of 27 people found this review helpful
I can see why this was a bestseller when it came out. History means more to me now than when I was in high school and college. Most history books recite dry facts without insightful connections to the significant meaning behind the events. Other so called modern day history books are either so politically correct that they only focus on the sins of the Western world or are so biased to the left or the right that the reader feels manipulated and intellectually bankrupt.
This audio book is well read and is consistently interesting. I highly recommend this work.
24 of 24 people found this review helpful