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A mostly worthy text
on August 11, 2005
For those interested in world civilization, "The Rise of the West" is a concise, enjoyable work written in 1963 that reflects the views and available scholarship of a erudite historian. McNeill's subsequent contemplations 25 years after his original manuscript are worthy in itself; that of a scholar influenced by Post-WW2 optimism of the West, but seeing inadequacies in his work because of such past exposure. McNeill is a thoughtful academic that does examine new evidence and modifies earlier theories to match contemporary findings.
In McNeill's own words of 1988, parts of the text are obsolete. Indeed, the original edition is even more outdated for 2005. His overall points regarding the influence of Western civilization in modern affairs still are salient, if not also interesting, notably in the breadth and structure of European expansion.
Some of the books topics are sure to run into opposition. McNeill's thesis regarding the Sumerian diffusion of civilization has been thoroughly challenged (though there are still champions of this view). The belief of outside invaders militarily conquering India and especially China for the formation of civilization is certainly far more in dispute today than in McNeill's time. The Aryan Invasion Theory is certainly no longer in vogue. Evidence for the uniqueness of China's Bronze Age is quite strong, and any outside civilizing influences are fairly negligible in Shang bronze development.
Histories of civilization do reflect the mindset of that particular generation. While one can leap into judgement that this text is Eurocentric, it does not compare in this regard with other books like James Henry Breasted's (also from the University of Chicago) "Ancient Times, A History of the Early World, 1916, second ed. 1935".
Other deserving books along the same lines are Fernand Braudel, "A History of Civilizations", Jared Diamond, "Guns, Germs, and Steel", and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, "Civilizations".