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I read this series years ago, then listened to them on cassette tape, and have begged for them on Audible for many years. Finally, the first two have appeared. No history is perfect, and history written in the forties cannot help but be dated, yet the authors’ presentation, tone, and focus seem surprisingly up to date. I really like the authors’ quirky sense of humor and matter of fact tone. This series is eleven big volumes totaling something like 500 hours. This history is very easy to listen to and it is hard for me to imagine anyone who would not find a lot of it interesting. Some people dislike the somewhat thematic instead of chronological approach, but I found it engaged me more than most histories. Persians and Chinese may be rightfully chagrined at the short shrift given their influential cultures and I agree with those who argue that the authors focus on exceptional individuals and deemphasize the importance of randomness in history. Nevertheless this is a series that I would recommend to anyone over twelve that wants to learn about western history. For me this was hundreds and hundreds of hours of fun and I did a little dance when I saw these were now available on Audible. Frankly none of the narration is perfect, but Robin Field does a good job in this volume. This volume covers pre-history and the invention of language and art up to the ancient eastern influences on western civilization. Selfishly I want to encourage people to listen to these first two so Audible will get the rest of the series.
90 of 90 people found this review helpful
One of the great books on Eastern Civilizations. This book is a perfect listen for those who don't like history with all of its dates since he tells the story functionally not chronologically. The book looks at history by each civilization and by function (philosophy, poetry, prose, people's language, government and so on). The author seems to excel when he's talking about a country's philosophy and uses it to describe the country's culture. The section on Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism are the best I have ever read.
It's hard to condense 2000 or more years into a digestible understandable format, but the author does it and the listener really gets to understand our place in the universe a little bit better because of it. The author magically takes random events, turns it into information, processes it into knowledge by giving it narrative and then gives the listener wisdom he didn't have before. I did smile out loud when we were told about Akbar the "illiterate intellectual". He would have the great works of his time read aloud to him. After having listened to this work, I too feel like the illiterate intellectual (since reading puts me to sleep and listening does not. Thank you Audible for making this book available!).
I will give a bit of advice to any potential listener that I know I wouldn't follow myself (my favorite kind of free advice). Don't listen to the first eight hours or so of the book on prehistoric man and early prehistory. He's just wrong and full of prejudices of the time. I did listen to it because I have a linear personality and just can't bring myself to not listen to it all, but the only value I got is that how little they knew about that period of man in 1935 and how they would extrapolate falsely and a boatload of the author's Western prejudices sneaked through.
I would be amiss to not comment on some of the incredibly absurd statements that permeate the book (meat eaters stink, "the average Japanese man today has the sensitivity and shrewdness of the Jew", Hindus are a superstitious people, and so on). I would recommend just ignore such statements and take the book as the masterpiece it is. I have yet to find any other book that covers Eastern Civilizations better and I definitely will read the other volumes in the series.
50 of 51 people found this review helpful
To fully appreciate Durant's encyclopedic work on the story of our our world, several things need to be understood.
Firstly, his approach to history is synthetic, as opposed to analytic - he doesn't look at one aspect or one period of human history, but rather he sets out to describe the entire experience of mankind from the Neolithic age to Napoleonic over the course of 11 volumes totalling around 9800 pages. That is a huge endeavour, especially considering that he wasn't writing a reference text, but a book that you could in theory pick up and read from cover to cover. Durant appreciated the challenge of his task and in the foreword to this, the first volume, he apologies in advance for the invariable omissions or mistakes.
Secondly, if you decide to read the entire series, you will, by virtue of what this work attempts to do, encounter whole cultures and/or time periods of which you knew little, if anything at all, and it can feel very discouraging and bewildering to listen to 6 hours on the ancient Chinese empire if your knowledge of China begins with Mao.
Thirdly, this volume was written in 1935 (it took Durant his whole life to finish the series together with his wife, and he died before he could write the volume on the 20th century), so both our knowledge of the ancient world and of our immediate history has obviously moved on since. It is particularly obvious in the section on Japan where Durant discusses her imperialistic ambitions as a possible catalyst for war with the USA.
Having said all that, the work is a great text as a standalone book, and indispensable if you want to read the entire series. Durant gives a great overview of cultures and intertwining politics of the period that few people study in school nowadays - ancient Assyria, Babylon, Sumer and the Persian empire, for example. It is hard to appreciate the greatness of Greek victory at Marathon (discussed in Vol II of the series), without first reading in this book about what a formidable enemy the Persians were. The Carthaginian civilisation (discussed in Vol III) makes more sense if you know about the ancient Phoenicians that were their ancestors.
My view of history has always been eurocentric and I knew next to nothing about India, China and Japan before reading this book. I am still more inclined to read about Rome and Renaissance Europe, but I have already added some books on China to my wishlist, as due to Durant's overview, I am more comfortable with where China fits in with the rest of the world and the history I have studied so far.
As this is the first volume in his work, there are teething problems. His thoughts tend to meander sometimes and there are parts that I feel were given undue attention - there is an extensive section on various Hindu holy texts that would have been more appropriate for a specialised book, as opposed to the general history of mankind. Having said that, I appreciated his overview of Akhenaten's religious reforms in Egypt (1350s BC), as I didn't realise that someone made such a strong attempt at monotheism before the Jews.
If you persevere with the series, Durant's writing gets much more streamlined and succinct - I'm on Vol III at the moment, and it's wonderful!
The biggest issue with the book is the narration. If you look at all 11 volumes of the series on Audible, you will see that after this book, everything is narrated either by Stefan Rudnicki or Grover Gardner; there is a reason for that. Robin Field's narration is soporific and monotonous and that is especially apparent (painfully so) when Field gets to the more obscure parts of the texts. Maybe my issues with the section on Hinduism had less to do with the text itself and more to do with the fact that it sounded like Field was reading an eulogy for the most boring person in the world.
In spite of that, if you decided to read this as a standalone book, I say - persevere! I don't know of any other book that could take you from 10 000 BC to Ancient Greece in a more succinct or logical way.
If you want to read the whole series, I promise that it gets much better - the writing is more edited and structured and one of the narrators - Gardner - is also the guy whom Audible reviewers consider the quintessential Mark Twain narrator, so he is perfect for Durant's witty asides of which there are plenty.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
Whatever the content the narrator is not pleasing enough to allow any more that a few minutes of the story.
3 of 5 people found this review helpful
The first in the staggering and admirable effort of Will Durant.
It is by it's very nature a skimming across the surface of history. But, with the length of the book and it being the first in an eleven-part series, it is a 'detailed skim' if that makes any sense ... it doesn't does it ... oh well, we're sticking with it!
The book is very well written and I found it a joy to listen to from start to finish.
The narrator is great. I ranked him 4 / 5 more because I found him to talk very s l o w l y and found that I had to listen to it at 1.25 x or 1.5 x for it not to be frustrating but that is the only issue.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
The prose is excellent, I enjoyed the narration - not perfect, but always clear. Eventually the narrator became a somewhat pleasing companion.
Durant has a unique perspective and a subtle sense of irony, he is positive and conveys his genuine enthusiasm for other cultures through the prism of this gentle philosopher's mind.
Towards the end of this volume, he predicts Japan would enter into military conflict with America in 1934. That is, 8 years before Pearl Harbour, this may not surprise everyone but it surprised me. He broadens our knowledge of the events that unfolded up until 1934.
Over and over you see the mistakes and folly of men and (few) women in power. And through it all, the idealists, artists and ordinary folk who strive to survive to make their civilisation succeed.
One thing for the purists, Durant is very generous with his opinions, this is his romanticised story (which is why the word history is not in the title). I loved it.