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From Dawn to Decadence:
At the outset of Jacques Barzun's colossal book From Dawn to Decadence 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, the author admits that when asked by friends how long he has been writing his book, he can only answer--a lifetime. The book is worth the wait for its extraordinary energy and intellectual range. Barzun begins by arguing that "by tracing in broad outline the evolution of art, science, religion, philosophy and social though during the last 500 years, I hope to show that during this span the peoples of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier elsewhere." In the process Barzun adroitly guides the reader from Luther's Ninety-five Theses and the religious revolution of the 16th century, through what he calls "the monarchical, liberal and social" revolutions of the subsequent 400 years that have shaped the culture of the modern Western world. All of Western life and thought can be found somewhere in From Dawn to Decadence. Portraits of Martin Luther, Shakespeare, Descartes, Florence Nightingale and James Joyce jostle alongside snapshots of cities at turning points in history--"The View from Venice Around 1650", "The View from Paris Around 1830", and finally "A View from New York Around 1995". Barzun's central argument is that "after a time, the Western mind was set upon by a blight: it was Boredom." This does lead Barzun to some more curmudgeonly comments towards the end of the book, where he deals with the cultural exhaustion of the last decades of the 20th century, but over 800 pages he offers more than enough insight into an incredible sweep of history to make this a riveting and rewarding book. --Jerry Brotton [via]