It's almost taboo to openly ponder the question of why the "Western World," its customs, institutions, political structures, technologies, and even fashions have come to dominate the world for at least the last 500 years. There is almost an inherent implication that race or at least culture must play some role in the comparative dominance of West. Several authors have recently attempted to explain the ascendancy of the West by focusing on distinguishing factors or circumstances other that the West being predominately "white." Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" is probably the most well known of these attempts. Diamond explicitly rejects race as an advantage and instead posits a theory of initial geographic/environmental advantage that is amplified throughout the course of history by positive feedback loops.
Text: In "Civilization," Neil Ferguson does not see race as worth even a mention, even if to just to discount it. Instead, Ferguson's analysis focuses on what factors that he deems "killer apps" (I know) that the West had and the Rest somehow lacked. These are (1) competition, (2) science, (3) the rule of law including property rights, (4) modern medicine, (5) consumerism, and (6) the work ethic arising from Christian and Protestant values. These "apps" were "downloaded" sometime around the Enlightenment and in conjunction propelled the West to world dominance. The relatively decentralized nature of Eurasian governments allowed competition between and within the political divisions. Competition was not limited to trade but included ideas. In the West, competition often took the forms of warfare and the race to claim colonial possessions. This fostered the rise and application of science and technologies, including the medicine necessary for Westerners survive in the lands they conquered. I found Ferguson's discussion of consumerism as a relatively new and positive societal aspect to be particularly interesting. The word "consumerism" is so negatively loaded these days that it is surprising and refreshing to hear an author intelligently expound its virtues and the positively role it plays as an engine for increasing the quality of our lives. Ferguson goes on to heap praise on the Protestant work ethic as healthy sense of competition and cohesion within communities. He also roundly maligns fundamentalist Islam and its repression of individual freedom. Frankly, I don't have a problem with that. Finally, the author concludes with a discussion of whether the West is in decline - something he points out has happened several times in the last couple of thousand years - and whether civilizations actually follow a cycle of rise and decline at all.
Narration: I always feel a bit of dread when purchasing a book narrated by its author. There are very few who can pull off a reading of their own text, but fortunately Neil Ferguson is one of those authors who can. The listener would be forgiven for thinking this narrator to be a professional actor instead of a gifted author.
Conclusion: "Civilization" is a interesting, sometimes fascinating, analysis of the particular characteristics of the Western World that set it apart and above the Rest of the World.
As this is an ensemble performance by a full cast of voice actors, it's going to be a bit different than the audiobooks you are used to. While I can listen to Neil Gaiman read his own work - or anyone's - for days, this full-cast experiment succeeds spectacularly. While all of the cast is at least fine - except Laura, I was never sold on her - I think the performer who read the character of Wednesday delivered like no other. He brought tones of aged wisdom and humor to an old Norse god making his living as a grifter in the New World. Oh - by the way - Gaiman does skilfully narrate a series of "coming to America" mini-stories, which make up a not insubstantial portion of the novel.
As far as the story goes, I can't believe that any person possessed of an imagination would not find Gaiman's work enrapturing. He is one of those rare talents who can craft wonderful story, with engaging characters, and express these with an elegance that blurs the line between prose and poetry. Give it a listen; you won't be disappointed.
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