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From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1st Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 228 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0060928834
ISBN-10: 0060928832
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In the last half-millennium, as the noted cultural critic and historian Jacques Barzun observes, great revolutions have swept the Western world. Each has brought profound change--for instance, the remaking of the commercial and social worlds wrought by the rise of Protestantism and by the decline of hereditary monarchies. And each, Barzun hints, is too little studied or appreciated today, in a time he does not hesitate to label as decadent.

To leaf through Barzun's sweeping, densely detailed but lightly written survey of the last 500 years is to ride a whirlwind of world-changing events. Barzun ponders, for instance, the tumultuous political climate of Renaissance Italy, which yielded mayhem and chaos, but also the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo--and, he adds, the scientific foundations for today's consumer culture of boom boxes and rollerblades. He considers the 16th-century varieties of religious experimentation that arose in the wake of Martin Luther's 95 theses, some of which led to the repression of individual personality, others of which might easily have come from the "Me Decade." Along the way, he offers a miniature history of the detective novel, defends Surrealism from its detractors, and derides the rise of professional sports, packing in a wealth of learned and often barbed asides.

Never shy of controversy, Barzun writes from a generally conservative position; he insists on the importance of moral values, celebrates the historical contributions of Christopher Columbus, and twits the academic practitioners of political correctness. Whether accepting of those views or not, even the most casual reader will find much that is new or little-explored in this attractive venture into cultural history. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Now 92, Barzun, the renowned cultural critic, historian and former Columbia provost and professor, offers much more than a summation of his life's work in this profound, eloquent, often witty historical survey. A book of enormous riches, it's sprinkled with provocations. For example, Barzun contradicts Max Weber, arguing that the Protestant Reformation did not galvanize the capitalist spirit. With feminist ardor, he depicts the 16th century as molded and directed by women "as brilliant as the men, and sometimes more powerful" (e.g., Queens Elizabeth and Isabella). His eclectic synthesis is organized around a dozen or so themes--including emancipation, abstraction and individualism--that in his judgment define the modern era. Barzun keeps up the momentum with scores of snappy profiles, including of Luther, Erasmus, Cromwell, Mozart, Rousseau and Byron, as well as of numerous unsung figures such as German educator Friedrich Froebel, inventor of kindergarten, and turn-of-the-century American pioneer ecologist George Marsh. Other devices help make this tome user-friendly--the margins are chock-full of quotes, while vignettes of Venice in 1650, Weimar in 1790 and Chicago in 1895 give a taste of the zeitgeist. In Barzun's glum estimate, the late 20th century has brought decadence into full bloom--separatism in all forms, apathetic electorates, amoral art that embraces filth or mere shock value, the decline of the humanities, the mechanization of life--but he remains hopeful that humanity will find its way again. This is a book to be reckoned with. First serial to American Scholar; BOMC selection. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 912 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1 edition (May 15, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060928832
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060928834
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (228 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #30,658 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on June 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I wasn't sure what to think while I was reading. But, I couldn't put this down. While reading, I thought Barzun crammed tightly so many ideas, events, details, and biographies that he verged on stimulus overload. Later, when remembering names or events that I encountered when watching TV or reading, I realized how much of the book is retainable.
Barzun is a famous stylist. Given how much I admire his writing, I was at first disappointed in the prose. This is not to say that it's written poorly. Only that I think Barzun was more concerned with imparting information in a straightforward way. Nevertheless, certain passages still sing.
I was also at first put off by the many biographies interspersed throughout the narrative. But, then again, after awhile I looked forward to them. They not only add information about famous persons, but color.
Barzun believes certain ideas-individualism, primitivism, self-consciousness, etc-are singularly Western. He uses all capital letters to denote these ideas each time they appear in the narrative. At first, these bothered me because I thought they were trite. But, again, I realized that Barzun was attempting to remind readers of the consistency of Western thought. He demonstrates that so many modern or even post-modern theories, which claim to be avant-guard and even anti-Western, really have deep cultural roots in the very things they revile.
This book is a challenge to those finding it fashionable to denounce Western Civilization. As Barzun says: "[T]he West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere." We are rightly proud of them.
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Format: Hardcover
Although my first love is reading about American history, an understanding of all the main events of Western Society since the discovery of America provided a very valuable read for me. For example, by understanding the Protestant Reformation better, religious movements in colonial America are put into better perspective. When I open a book of 800 or so pages, my first thought is "Oh Lord, how am I going to plow through this?" However, this book is so enthralling that it moves as quickly as a short novel. I find the type of writing in this book to be absolutely captivating.. the writing I refer to is that which has a point of view but is not the product of an idealogue. The author states an intelligent point of view, throughout, certainly one which can be disagreed with, but certainly reasonable and thoughtful. Barzun is like the great historian Paul Johnson in that he is able to weave biographical information of key historical figures as well as in depth coverage of culture, religion, economics, philosophy etc. Additionally, this is a history of real people, not just a survey of wars and great men/women. In this respect, the book is like Johnson's "The Birth of the Modern," and "History of the American People." Finally, I must point out that although a review stated that his viewpoint is generally conservative, he makes numerous points which would find agreement among leftists. True he defends Western culture and is wary of political correctness. However, he is not an obssessed idealogue and, as for example in his discussion of religious development, he offers observations which might offend traditionalists. Although he may, in fact, be generally conservative, I don't think his views are easily subject to labels.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Barzun is 94 years old and has written more than thirty books. His career as a historian has been an amazing one, and this book gives evidence of his vast experience. The time period covered (500 years) is certainly a broad one. But it is a magnificently rich one to study. I bought the book because I was interested in reading about Renaissance and Baroque art and wanted to get a broader sense of historical context. I got that and much more... politics, philosophy, religion, and more are discussed with reference to one another and with an amazing sense of cohesion.
Barzun speaks with a truly historical perspective. He never fails to be thorough, insightful, probing, and penetrating in his analysis. His lucidity and clarity are amazing; as I said his vast experience as a historian is evident. He is always impartial, rendering a truly helpful take on whatever he adresses. His approaches are always fresh - he dispels common misconceptions and gives the reader a more accurate historical perspective. His sense of focus is remarkable. The book is 800 pages long, but it never loses a sense of the big picture it is painting. Barzun names a few common themes of change in the last 5 centuries and they become threads which reappear constantly in his narrative. None of his thoughtful observations go without context and relation to his overarching argument. The impact of events becomes clear through Barzun's careful analysis.
His writing style is most enjoyable. He is quite casual without lacking anything in specificity. His prose is always engaging - it makes this massive work of cultural history a joy to read. Barzun's quickness to get to the heart of the matter and the ease with which he resolves historical questions are amazing and sometimes bring a smile to my face.
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