Often someone will talk about a book that has had a significant impact on their lives. I don’t have one particular book, but an entire series that influenced my life: Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven volume Story of Civilization.
The Durants’ passion and commitment to documenting and celebrating the origins and traditions of the Western experience transcends other books about the topic. The language is slightly chauvinistic and very politically incorrect to our ears, but the sincerity and spirit of the project still shines through.
The other quality of this labour of love is the urgency of the enterprise. Begun in 1935, the early volumes were Will and Ariel Durant’s attempt to reconnect with the grand civilizing experiment of the West in the face of the irrationality of Nazism and Fascism, and the impending darkness of the Second World War.
Over the years I stumbled upon volume 3, Caesar and Christ, then volume 2, The life of Greece, and finally The age of faith. Every random encounter was an adventure as I got ‘lost’ and ‘found’ in each book. Although the series wasn’t completed until 1975, the pinnacle of this labour of love was reached in the tenth volume, Rousseau and revolution, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968.
What I loved most about the ‘walk’ were the contradictions, including many examples of the Dark Ages being not so dark and the Age of Enlightenment not so enlightened. Yet the history this series describes is worthy of praise. As this was my introduction to Cervantes, Rabelais, Milton, Voltaire, the Gracchi family, and more, I will always hold many fond memories of my random stroll through Will and Ariel Durant’s epic series.