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49 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A History of How People Have Solved the Problem of Living
Everyone who's interested in history honors those who have lived in the past, how they have come to unique solutions to solve their problems. We try to guard against what C.S. Lewis calls "chronological snobbery" -- the notion that just because we were born later, we necessarily are smarter and wiser than those who have gone before us.
The older I get,...
Published on January 18, 1999 by Jeffrey S. Bennion

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59 of 70 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Whose humanity?
Theodore Zeldin announces his project in a brief preface. It bristles with the energy of ambition. We sense that we may be about to launch into something truly revolutionary:
"I want to show how, today, it is possible for individuals to form a fresh view both of their own personal history and of humanity's whole record of cruelty, misunderstanding, and joy. To have a...
Published on March 11, 2003 by David Egan


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49 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A History of How People Have Solved the Problem of Living, January 18, 1999
This review is from: Intimate History of Humanity, An (Paperback)
Everyone who's interested in history honors those who have lived in the past, how they have come to unique solutions to solve their problems. We try to guard against what C.S. Lewis calls "chronological snobbery" -- the notion that just because we were born later, we necessarily are smarter and wiser than those who have gone before us.
The older I get, the more I'm convinced that the ancients had it right all along. And this book is a powerful antidote against chronological snobbery. Aside from being truly uplifting, it's encouraging to see how people have faced, and overcome, dilemmas similar to our own. To see the many ways they have solved those problems is fascinating and liberating.
My only regret is that this book has received far too little attention. The scope is so wide ranging, the range of fascinating tiny details so vast, that it's difficult to review, and impossible to summarize, at least with my paltry expository skills. So just read it! And spread the word!
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A history of everything, November 27, 2001
This review is from: Intimate History of Humanity, An (Paperback)
I find it difficult to praise this book enough. It is definitely not just a book about history--it is more a book about philosophy and the human condition. I could say that this is a book about everything--or rather everything that deals with being human.
Even though it certainly is not a chronological story of human events, it examines many of the aspects of intrapersonal and interpersonal behavior we take for granted every day. He states himself, "But this book is not a summary of history: it has deliberately limited itself to finding lock that look as though they will not open, and to showing how they can be opened." The author, Theodore Zeldin, raises the question of what freedom really is, the history of conversation, loneliness, sex, dating, religion, and much more. He has interviewed people from all over the world to find commonalities and differences in the way we lead our lives. I think this is the kind of book that everyone can relate to and must be somewhat interested in as long as one cares about the human condition.
As the author states himself, "This book has tried to show how great a difference to the conduct of daily life the ability to alter the focus of one's perceptions can make. To be hospitable to the nuances of life, it is no use treating the mind as an automatic camera; only by composing one's picture and playing with light and shadow can one hope to see something interesting." This book is in the end optimistic and Zeldin believes that humanity is merely at the beginnings of worldwide hospitality and sharing and understanding of ideas.
Personally, this is the kind of reading I particularly enjoy--a compelling work that gets you thinking, a work which raises as many questions as it answers. However, it is also an extremely well researched work (as evidenced by the notes at the end of each chapter) with all kinds of fascinating information on the side. He provides a comparison of different attitudes and philosophies of different cultures. It is like reading a book about behind the scenes of history. Instead of tracing the history of things like kings and battles, he traces the history behind more intangible concepts like the concept of romantic love and contentment. Overall, I cannot begin to describe the entire work here, nor do I feel obliged to. I would highly recommend that you read this book yourself to fully understand everything it is about.
In case you are interested, here is a listing of the chapters:
1. How humans have repeatedly lost hope, and how new encounters, and a new pair of spectacles, revive them
2. How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations
3. How people searching for their roots are only beginning to look far and deep enough
4. How some people have acquired an immunity to loneliness
5. How new forms of love have been invented
6. Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex
7. How the desire that men feel for women, and for other men, has altered through the centuries
8. How respect has become more desirable than power
9. How those who want neither to give orders nor to receive them can become intermediaries
10. How people have freed themselves from fear by finding new fears
11. How curiosity has become the key to freedom
12. Why it has become increasingly difficult to destroy one's enemies
13. How the art of escaping from one's troubles has developed, but not the art of knowing where to escape to
14. Why compassion has flowered even in stony ground
15. Why toleration has never been enough
16. Why even the privileged are often somewhat gloomy about life, even when they can have anything the consumer society offers, and even after sexual liberation
17. How travellers are becoming the largest nation in the world, and how they have learned not to see only what they are looking for
18. Why friendship between men and women has become so fragile
19. How even astrologers resist their destiny
20. Why people have not been able to find the time to lead several lives
21. Why fathers and their children are changing their minds about what they want from each other
22. Why the crisis in the family is only one stage in the evolution of generosity
23. How people choose a way of life, and how it does not wholly satisfy them
24. How humans become hospitable to each other
25. What becomes possible when soul-mates meet
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic, December 24, 1999
This review is from: Intimate History of Humanity, An (Paperback)
This is a unique read... Not a novel, but equally engrossing; not a historical account, but namedrops events from history which most readers will probably be unaware of; my first philosophical read but not intimidatingly so! Chapters are split into themes such as "how respect has become more desirable than power", "why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex" and so on. It was the index which made me buy this book, oddly enough: "Caesar, Cairo, Cardano, Calcuta, Calvin (John), camerada, cancer..." Any book which includes such a diverse range of topics has to teach you many things. I'm jealous of the author and have bought this book for friends - and would recommend it to anyone.
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59 of 70 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Whose humanity?, March 11, 2003
This review is from: Intimate History of Humanity, An (Paperback)
Theodore Zeldin announces his project in a brief preface. It bristles with the energy of ambition. We sense that we may be about to launch into something truly revolutionary:
"I want to show how, today, it is possible for individuals to form a fresh view both of their own personal history and of humanity's whole record of cruelty, misunderstanding, and joy. To have a new vision of the future, it has always first been necessary to have a new vision of the past.... Instead of explaining the peculiarity of individuals by pointing to their family or childhood, I take a longer view: I show how they pay attention to--or ignore--the experience of previous, more distant generations, and how they are continuing the struggles of many other communities all over the world ... among whom they have more soul-mates than they may realize."
The 25 chapters that follow bear titles like "How humans have repeatedly lost hope, and how new encounters, and a new pair of spectacles, revive them," and "How people choose a way of life, and how it does not wholly satisfy them." Each chapter begins with a portrait of one or several people in the contemporary world--usually French women--focusing on a particular life problem, or a creative attempt at solving such a problem. Zeldin follows this portrait with a brief history of that problem, or of a clearly related phenomenon.
For instance, the first chapter opens with a portrait of Juliette, a domestic servant who feels trapped in her job, in her social class, and by the unbridgeable distance between her and potential friends. This portrait is followed by a history of slavery--not a linear history, but a selective highlighting of relevant themes and moments in the history of slavery. Zeldin emphasizes that not all slaves have been so involuntarily, nor is there such a great difference between those who are enslaved forcibly and those who are enslaved by their own lack of imagination. The overall effect is that we gain a stronger sense of kinship with medieval Slavs and others whose history is contrasted with Juliette's, as well as a stronger sense of our own agency in determining how we might fit ourselves into the patterns of history.
This first chapter is one of the strongest in the book, and I summarize it as an example of Zeldin's project at its brightest. Throughout the book, Zeldin writes with admirable compassion, as well as with an unapologetic earnestness that would read as idealistically naïve if it weren't for the intelligence and determined sincerity of his prose. These qualities made me want his project to succeed, and yet by the hundredth page I had already almost given up on it.
I had hoped to find a deep history of psychology and morality, a revelation that our preoccupations, passions, and needs, and the consequent values that they engender, have a long genealogy that is far from transparent. Such a history might help to disabuse us of the feelings of necessity and immutability that hover about our frustrations. However, rather than present us with a rich diversity of psychological and ethical concerns, Zeldin is keen to impose modern values and preoccupations on that past, dictating the morals we are to learn from his histories rather than allowing us to draw our own lessons and conclusions.
I believe the lack of relativism is quite intentional. Zeldin is inspired by the universalism of the Enlightenment, and speaks admiringly of the Declaration of the Rights of Man as being a declaration not just for the French people, but for all people. He wants us to see that all humans share a great deal, that people of different eras and cultures are not so different from us. Applying liberal values and contemporary emotional preoccupations to times past may foster a greater sense of kinship, but I think it is also deeply misleading. If our aim is to understand people of other cultures, we must make a determined effort to understand them as they understand themselves. How useful is a feeling of kinship if it is based ultimately on misrepresentation?
A further unfortunate consequence of Zeldin's imposition of liberal values on the past is that, despite an impressive range of examples, the book becomes repetitive. An exhortation toward open-mindedness can be given quite thoroughly in twenty pages. If a book of 472 pages returns again and again to a very basic set of themes, without elaborating on them or moving beyond them, it becomes tiresome no matter how many engaging historical anecdotes it contains. Despite the staggering breadth of Zeldin's reading, despite the range and diversity of the lives he portrays, this book ultimately makes for a disappointingly narrow read.
And while it is hard to fault the impressive range of material that Zeldin leads us through quite comfortably, certain choices narrow the breadth of the book even further. His justification for interviewing French women almost exclusively (he doesn't seem to register that almost all these women are also white) reads as a half-hearted apology for Francophilia. While we do get the occasional glimpse into the rich cultures of India, China, and Japan (less so with cultures with less sophisticated literary traditions) most of his anecdotes draw from the history of the Christian and Muslim West. While it would be unreasonable to demand a deep knowledge of all aspects of world history (though a project this ambitious would seem to require it) there are moments that the need for a non-Western point of contrast or comparison is sorely felt.
Zeldin wishes to speak for all humanity, but he succeeds only in speaking of all humanity, and even there his effort is lackluster. In truth, he only speaks for those of us in the modern West, and in addressing our current preoccupations with a therapeutic aim, his book reads as much like self-help as it does like a history.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Overrated, May 22, 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Intimate History of Humanity, An (Paperback)
Despite its moments of brilliance, this is actually something of a disappointing book. It never really BUILDS, or GOES SOMEWHERE; a sense of revelation is not shared between writer and reader. It makes the point: "be open-minded, curious, flexible; don't be rigid and closed-minded" again and again, in a hundred ways. It HAMMERS the point home by battery, sheer accumulation, but it doesn't PROGRESS towards new territory. I would have thought that the kind of people attracted to this kind of book might already take the "be curious in all facets of your life" maxim as a given; thus there's something slightly condescending about the book, in the same way that "self-help" books can treat the blindingly obvious as revelatory. In fact, its biggest shortcoming might be that it is in effect a self-help book masquerading, behind a certain facade of academic density, as "new philosophy". In trying to be both it is neither. Zeldin is obviously a very smart guy, with a very lively mind - but "one of the 100 most important thinkers in the world today"? Well who knows. It's a strange world after all. What this book shows is that he's a "plodder", not a visionary -- takes one very valid and pertinent bright-spark idea, and gives us a thousand examples of it. That is not an insightful process. It gives away his academic background, or rather it doesn't mark him out as a visionary and creative writer -- read Roberto Calasso for the truly astonishing and mind-boggling. Also, this book is not lucid and dazzling in the sense of moving forward through a thought process. The thought process is curiously static, or at best circular and repetitive. Still, I read it through and found it readable enough, and quite enjoyable. I would have given it two and a half stars, but that's not an option, so I'm leaning upwards to three.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary..., January 23, 2004
By 
Space (Different Planet) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Intimate History of Humanity, An (Paperback)
What a wonderful and intelligent book to read agian and again. Theodore Zeldin discusses in 25 chapters the past, the present and the future.
He has a different subject for each chapter analyzing the issue in his simple and challenging form, and he pushes the reader to get smarter...

Some of the chapters are: How men and woman have slowley learned to have interesting conversations, how some people have acquired an immunity to loneliness, how respect has become more desirable than power, how humams become hospitable to each other, and why people have not been able to find the time to lead several lives. These are just some of the titles in the book, and as you can see the subjects are just enchanting in every way, and it drives the reader to get involved in every way, and make his own beliefs and thoughts.
one of the best books for sure...
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascintating, inspired, insightful, July 29, 2000
This review is from: Intimate History of Humanity, An (Paperback)
This book is a rich, thought-provoking assimilation of human experience, addressing inumerable topics whilst maintaining a fascinating, coherent whole. Topics include "How people choose a way of life, and how it does not truly satisfy them", and "Why there has been more progress in cooking than sex". For me what reading really did was to fire my imagination to look afresh at what it means to be human. In the introduction Zeldin argues that too often we look in terms only of the immediate past, and of our near surroundings, rather than considering the experiences of all individuals throughout history. He takes detailed conversations with individuals about their personal experiences to show in context the significance of the "silent", intimate battles of history, from which he argues we have as much to learn and draw from as from our more well-documented, public history. Zeldin writes that the book should represent the starting point, with each chapter including a bibliography on the many topics touched upon. I found this book extremely readable and succinctly expressed, and as absorbing as any novel.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars unusual & interesting, May 8, 2000
This review is from: Intimate History of Humanity, An (Paperback)
This is social history at its best by an intellectual who clearly has some French roots, speaking wonderfully about whatever subject he chooses to elaborate on. In this case this results in a kaleidoscope of images of private human life over time. I liked the multi-disciplinary approach and the almost poetic language and impressionistic canvas used here. Not a book to learn history from as commonly understood but definitely a refreshing complement to other social histories.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book I've read in years; many late nights spent on it, April 6, 2005
Just reading this book gave me a thrilled sort of enthusiasm and compassion towards humanity. I agree that it does not build up very well; it does not have a big powerful climax of revelation, but it is so packed full of interesting true stories, both historical and current, that what you learn is between the lines. He shows how history looked at from the perspective of individual lives is not so much an evolving entity but that different attitudes have been prevelent at different places and times, and what we hold to be proper now has been considered both true and false somewhere else before, or even in our own culture's history, and what really binds us is our always human outlook and response to it all.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting, but could have amounted to more, January 20, 2008
This review is from: Intimate History of Humanity, An (Paperback)
In 'An Intimate History of Humanity', Theodore Zeldin undertakes an ambitious project. He takes a broad look at a side of history often neglected in standard textbooks - the history of people's interior lives and interpersonal relationships. His hope is that people today can improve themselves and the world by gleaning lessons from history - lessons on meaningful communication, open-mindedness, creativity and curiosity.

The strengths of his book lie with his fundamental optimism in human nature. He doesn't believe that history has come to its end, and that there is no more room for true innovation of spirit and mind. His tone is kindly and curious; he does not write contemptuously of anyone. He believes that true change cannot be imposed by force from a government, that traits such as compassion, generosity and empathy cannot be legislated.

Perhaps the best part of his book are the beginnings of each chapter. He structures his chapters in the following way - first he creates a portrait of someone in the present day (almost 100% of the time, this present-day person is a Frenchwoman). Afterwards, he links the issues and dilemmas of this Frenchwoman to what he sees as similar issues in the past. For example, after spending a few pages discussing a particular Frenchwoman's thoughts about relationships with men, he will sketch out some history on the relationship between men and women and how it has evolved.

His portraits of the contemporary women are engrossing. Just as character studies they are interesting to read. The Frenchwomen he speaks to come from different walks of life, and he succeeds in rendering their complexity.

What weakens his book is the nature of his forays into history. Because he touches upon so many topics, and devotes only several pages to each, it's difficult for him to discuss and develop his points in-depth. The facts he does present are interesting - he writes about various historical figures, texts and old cultural practices, and I enjoyed reading about people as diverse as Galen and Lady Murasaki. But his discussion of historical trends can be simplistic. He'll present, for instance, some evolving attitudes of British or Japanese aristocracy on the topic of love as evidence of how people's ideas of love can change. However he doesn't convincingly argue that these changes can be recreated (or are relevant) across the world, or all classes; I'm not always convinced that he chooses the best examples. He doesn't go deep enough into the roots of those changes, the broader historical and psychological circumstances (I would've loved reading a close comparison of two cultures faced with similar historical dilemmas, and their similarities and differences in how they evolved in respects to something like marriage or romantic love). While I'm certain that there are struggles and questions that human beings share universally, Zeldin's possible solutions to these struggles sometimes seems relevant to only a certain socioeconomic class or culture. Other times he'll raise an interesting point - for example, that India's ancient civilizations were often open-minded about foreign ideas, but that the society closed off different castes from each other... and then he just leaves it at that. Why not discuss the possible reasons for this further? Wouldn't that enrich our understanding of human nature and history?

His definitions of various character traits and abstract ideas can suffer from fuzzy, superficial definitions. For instance, in his brief historical foray into 'compassion', he focuses a lot on medical care and then includes, disjointedly, some other arguments about the nature of present-day romantic relationships and interpersonal communication (he doesn't quite justify why he focuses on these facets of compassion in particular). At one point he writes about the length of time patients stay in hospitals and mentions that in Japan hospital stays are treated as "as a holiday from conformity and the rigours of ordinary life" - patients are seen as individuals, not as cases, they wear their own clothes, they have individually tailored treatments, and they love discussing all of their symptoms ("eighty-eight percent of the Japanese claim to be suffering from some kind of illness"). But there's a lot more going on here, psychologically and culturally, than evidence of compassion. He then talks about Sweden democratising compassion by providing everyone with care... while in another chapter he speaks of the limitations of care provided by the government, how it is often impersonal and mechanical rather than truly caring. This is just one example of the sorts of inconsistencies and superficialties that crop up in his book.

The different sections of each chapter seem disjointed as well. It can be awkward, how he links the issues of a contemporary Frenchwomen to various cultural upheavals in the past (and why only Frenchwomen? I guess he's trying to show that even in modern societies you still find ancient dilemmas; although it would've been interesting if he had also interviewed women from cultures where the struggle between modern trends and older practices and beliefs is much more obvious). His transition from one chapter to the next (particularly towards the end of the book) is pretty stilted and forced. When he reflects on traits such as generosity, his argument oftentimes boils down to very obvious ideas, such as how generosity benefits from empathy and putting yourself into another person's shoes (and he simply says this straightout without necessarily bringing in compelling examples from history). His 'solutions' for the world's ills are often a repetition of 'be open-minded, curious, creative...' and while those are very positive and helpful traits, and while he does discuss some obstacles to the development of such traits, his arguments tend to smack of superficiality. He throws a lot of facts at you, but they don't always amount to an actual argument.

Again, Zeldin's book is ambitious and it can be delightful. I like how he tries to search for the common dilemmas and hopes that humans share everywhere, and to be fair, there are times where he does make an interesting connection between modern and past problems. However, when he is not writing his absorbing portraits of modern women, his approach often lacks depth and merely seems to drift across various historical tidbits.
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Intimate History of Humanity, An
Intimate History of Humanity, An by Theodore Zeldin (Paperback - December 1, 1995)
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