The first volume of Will Durant's Pulitzer Prize-winning series, Our Oriental Heritage: The Story of Civilization, Volume I chronicles the early history of Egypt, the Middle East, and Asia. In this masterful work, readers will encounter:
I focus on fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, science, history, politics and read a lot. I try to review everything I read.
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.
l'enfer c'est les autres
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.
Two caveats. This first volume was written in the 1930’s so some of its information is inevitably dated. Secondly, this book is really more about giving the Eastern context necessary for understanding Western civilization than a comprehensive guide to Eastern civilization.
That being said, it is a beautifully written history, alive with detail, with generous amounts of quoted literature giving the testimony and mindset of the people who lived through these times. One thing I like about Durant’s approach is that while he is always lively and opinionated, he doesn’t create strawmen. He is always sure to present the best case for differing points of view. It would be nice to see more of that quality in these polarized times.
This was thoroughly enjoyable to listen to.
This is the only book in the series I've had time to read, so listening was a review for me. That being said, I loved it as much the second time as the first. Durant is my favorite author because of the lyrical way he writes history. Some of the many highlights for me are his explanation of Japanese poetry, the gruesome and barbaric ways people have tortured and killed one another (death by boats!), the plunder of India, how civilization creates and morphs religions, and random historical mistakes that travel through time and are a part of our current speech. (jehovah) It's a joy to be able to listen to this series because I will never have the time to read it, but can listen all day long at work. If you love history, this is the gold standard.
54 yrs, ,memb 12yrs,library -75%nonfic 10% fiction,15% classics. History, all sciences, bio, classics,diverse other interests.
This 11 vol. World history is without peer- and is one of the greatest works by any measure In history - and on history. I had asked audible to get it when I saw it became available and it wasn't anywhere on their radar. I assumed they (the one who just released the first book-recorded books I think) would either use the one that was around on tape - that had already been done by the incomparable Grover Gardener or at least use someone else of his caliber and suitability for the material as well as being appropriate for such a stunningly important work. What we got was a huge disappointment. The narrator was not suited to the material-at all, and I should know seeing as( very roughly) 300 of my 900 books are history.
Ive been after this series in audible format for 5yrs and while I sincerely thank audible for their efforts in bringing these titles on board It has been a huge let down. Its not audibles fault though.
Audible has really been great, not just for getting this(despite it being a disaster) but also other things Ive requested like the 2 missing books from Robert Caro's years of lyndon johnson biography which by the way was done marvelously by them. If you havnt read that multi-volume biography your life is incompleate!
Audible if your listening-this 11 vol masterpiece is out there on tape by grover gardiner(though he uses anouther name- Alex Alexander or something like that) Just waiting for you to pick it up re-master it and put it out there. Tongues are hanging out in anticipation of someone doing this!
This book was written in the 1930's and it needs to be updated. Other than that, this book is one of the best history books ever written.
Primarily my problem was the book's approach to prehistory and history, as a synthesis rather than a linear timeline. Kudos for looking at things from a big picture - but for me, it didn't add anything other than supposition. Maybe if I hadn't read so much history and archeology already I would have had a different response. Maybe if this had been updated to include current findings I would have been more engaged. I found the first several chapters sounded antiquated in information. The language in several cases came across as opinionated and unbalanced to my ears.The author does strive for balance overall. I understand he is writing with the mind-set of 1935, and from that point of view, you could say his verbiage was practically liberal; instead my overall impression was 'stop with the lists already!' I needed more citations for things that sounded like guesses and loose assumptions. In essence the effect of the first 6 chapters accumulated into my stopping the book and going on to another audio book. With that in mind, I would say my review is unfair, based on incomplete information.
The performance was even, but lacked energy. I've 'read' more complex books with narrators that have kept me very engaged.
I imagine this volume had to be the most difficult for Will Durant to produce because of its timeline. He begins his work brilliantly by explaining mankind's apparent need for familial safety and how a family grew to a tribe, from a tribe to a village, village to city, city to state, state to nation, etc. As more people join a culture, though, tasks can be distributed evenly among the citizens, giving some folks a leisurely time to create what came to be known as art or science and, since they were the possessors of such beautiful things, they came to be set at a higher standard, creating caste systems and such cultural labels that are still seen today.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the role of women and how they were the rulers of their families in ancient (or, as Durant calls them, Oriental) days but, with the evolution of castes and religion, they came to be thought of as property (especially in the last century which is a time he called Occidental.)
Robin Field is an amazing narrator with no misunderstanding of sentence structure or diction. I understood him quite clearly and his telling of quotes and notes was fantastic! I can already tell that I'm going to very much enjoy these volumes by Will Durant as well as anything else Robin Field narrates in the future! This book is a prized possession!
Whatever the content the narrator is not pleasing enough to allow any more that a few minutes of the story.
It's well written history book that the author made it easy to hear and not get board! but it's hard as all the other history books to not keep any side! So I wonder how truthful this book is!
"Meandering work with a difficult narration"
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.
This is a good overview introduction to this important aspect of being generally well educated but was written in 1935.
He is clearly anticipating major trouble with Japan and the rise of china bit of course the twentieth century went totally insane in ways which perhaps no one could have predicted. The Holocaust hadn't happened -, although the Armenian genocide at the hands of the muslim Turks had and isn't really mentioned - the Jews hadn't returned to their homeland and refounded the state of Israel etc
So to cut a long story it was revolutionary in its day to cover such a massive sweep but today its sorely in need of a new edition. If that happens the potential to link the discussions of various art architecture and personalities with weblinks would make the resource amazingly good.
As far as I know no modern historian has attempted so epic an undertaking and it would be great if some did.
But if any publisher is listening not a Marxist revisionist piece of propaganda please. And don't do the stupid pc whitewash of left wing non European atrocities. And be as critical of Islam and non western civilisations as you inevitably are of the West. That's just the racism of lower expectations writ massive.
"Hopelessly out of date"
I was bitterly disappointed, on starting to listen to this, to discover that it was published in 1935. The advances in the world of scholarship in this field since then have made this book irrelevant. Had the blurb made clear just how old this book is I would never have bought it
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