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From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present

4.11 of 5 stars 4.11  ·  rating details  ·  2,941 ratings  ·  175 reviews
Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has now set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500.

In this account, Barzun describes what Western Man wrought from the Renaisance and Reformation down to the present in th
Paperback, 912 pages
Published May 15th 2001 by Harper Perennial (first published 2000)
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Community Reviews

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Brief synopsis: A book for the stalwart who love learning and intellectual gymnastics. A brain workout.

I have to agree with Elizabeth S who reviewed as follows:

A very deep read. One of those that, to really enjoy, takes more time than just the reading time. It isn't a book to read, it is a book to experience. A book that, when you are done, you feel you know less than you thought you knew when you started. Overall, absolutely amazing.

Jacques Barzun is extremely well respected and won the Nation
Perhaps the single most amazing thing about this tome - an absolutely brilliant compendium of wisdom, erudition, commentary, and insight, written with a detached passion that illuminates the topics and breathes life into its actors - is that Barzun assembled most of this five-star gem whilst in his early nineties! That the cobwebs of senescence have never been allowed to gather in this transplanted Frenchman's mind becomes abundantly clear as one works their way through this absolute exemplarity ...more
Lynn Buschhoff
This a book for the person who thinks that they will not live long enough to learn everything they want to learn. It is huge. It is marvelous. If one looks at the bibliography, it is stunning that any one person could have accessed all this knowledge. This book is 500 hundred year of Western culture, everything from politics, to cookbooks. It took me from October to May to read this book ( of course I put it down for periods or time to read a fast mystery or thriller for a break) but I felt like ...more
David Withun
Barzun’s swan-song, which consists of 800+ pages of historical information, interesting quotes, anecdotes, insights, and reflections, is the literary equivalent of sitting at the feet of a great master and venerable elder. The wide swath of knowledge encompassed in this book, including such varied aspects of Western culture as ballet, opera, Dadaism, mystery crime novels, and hippies, and the balanced bird’s eye view and authoritative approach taken to each is indicative of the long life (now ov ...more
Bob Mustin
I came across Jacques Barzun in the late nineties as his book, From Dawn to Decadence - 1500 to the Present - 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, began to gain traction. I was still bogged down in an engineering career then, had divorced my first wife and 2.4 kids, and was in the early stages of re-marriage, but I felt compelled by the idea of this book and began to read it in what spare time I could summon.

What a book! And what a mind. Barzun was in his mid-nineties then, an age in which you -
Brad Lyerla
This is a wonderful book that could be written only by someone like Barzun and only near the end of a deeply distinguished career that spanned several decades.

The scope of the book is breath-taking. And the learning necessary to write it is mind-boggling. The book is exactly what the sub-title suggests: an erudite discussion of 500 years of western cultural life.

In particular, I love Barzun's definition of decadence: a state of affairs where futility and absurdity are accepted as normal. Barzu
A library of Western Cultural History in a single volume.

FAVORITE. Highest Recommendation!
Aug 10, 2011 Paula rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Those interested in the History of Ideas
Recommended to Paula by:
Not the kind of book that you can't put down. I use this as my exercycle reading. That way I digest a little each day. This is not only a book about history, but a book about ideas. Barzun traces the intellectual history of Western Civilization since its "Dawn" with the birth of the printing press and consequent proliferation of ideas. I never pick it up without feeling that I've found insight into why things have played out the way they have, or at least confirmation of something I've suspected ...more
Eric Robert
This Book Is 11,856 Pages Long

After having read Jacques Barzun's suma thirteen times, I have concluded that this book is not really 912 pages long as it appears in the product details, but rather 11,856 pages. Every time I read this masterpiece, I find new ideas and fresh material on every page. Seemingly, the book is an endless fount of intellect, culture, etiquette, morals, art, science, politics, and genius that serves as the capstone of the last era and the cornerstone for the next.

The first
Aug 03, 2008 Michael rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone with a pretense to cultural literacy
Recommended to Michael by: Justin Zeppa (wise boy!)
Frankly, having read this work, I'm a bit embarassed to be writing a review. In as much as the whole narrative leads one to an inescapable feeling of living in a totally fragmented, de-contextualized, and (to use the author's word) decadent, society; it seems rather self-indulgent to commit these words to the infinite void of cyberspace, where, as far as I will ever know, no one will read them, respond to them, or act upon them.
Having said that, however, here are my thoughts:
Barzun has done
It's not often that one is sorry to finish a nearly 800-page book, or that the process of wending one's way through those 800 pages is so consistently engaging, enjoyable and even exciting. Being so thoroughly a product of this decadent era, I have to make an ironic comment: part of the reason this romp through 500 years of history was so enjoyable -- for me and I suspect for many of those who put it on the NYT bestseller list -- is because of a level of culture and education that renders only a ...more
Tso William
This article reviews two masterpieces of intellectual history: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (by Jacques Barzun) and The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century (by Peter Watson)

Reading intellectual history is like looking out at the window when the plane takes off. The colossal buildings become smaller and smaller until they are no more than little blocks of lego. It is then you realize how those distinct and individual blocks are connected through
Diann Blakely
Many of us make New Year's resolutions concerning books. We think we should read more, and we know we should nourish our minds and hearts with work more substantive than the latest legal thriller or one-trick pop-psychology guidebook. But a month or two after Jan. 1, many of us are faced with a stack of books we resolved to read but haven't yet begun. What's the point of starting a volume as literally and metaphorically weighty as GREEK THOUGHT: A GUIDE TO CLASSICAL KNOWLEDGE when the idea of fi ...more
Evan Fraser
As everyone who’s attempted to read this book knows, it’s huge, it’s vast, it’s panoramic. It is a Great Book and is worth tackling.

That said, while I was particularly impressed with the first 3/4 , I couldn’t help but feel that Barzun was more than a bit dismissive of the modern age and looked down his nose at the current day. So, while I thought his treatment of the enlightenment and the reformation were revealing, I did however, find his critique of the 20th century a bit halting.

Also, and
K Kamath
For those too young to have been subjected to H.G. Wells, Toynbee, the Durants -- who else am I missing? -- this book may come as an aid to forming some framework by which to understand the past and present and perhaps predict the future. While not quite Marx or Nostradamus, Barzun and his academic assistants really try to rev their mental engines on this one. They look at what they know and rethink it in terms of all they have learned since they first learned the first things; they revise views ...more
Bob Nardo
Feb 10, 2008 Bob Nardo rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Bob by: Sara
Colossal integration of art, culture, politics and thought over the last half millenium.

Update: I just finished the book. What a magnificent work. I will just add two notes.

1. From the prologue, for those who may be interested in Barzun's framework: "All that is meant by Decadence is 'falling off.' It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear
The best book I have ever read in this year and for the last 20 years (i.e. my whole life up to this point).

This is a masterpiece. It has done so much to me, intellectually, artistically, and emotionally, that it deserves such a title.

From Dawn to Decadence covers a 500 year period from roughly the Renaissance - the so-called reborn of the Western Civilization - until the end of 20th century, which Barzun considers as its very Decadence. I have never read a history book in which everything weav
By far the most insipid book I've ever had the displeasure of reading. Barzun evidently feels that cleaving to a willfully eccentric pedantry is an appropriate substitute for analysis and synthesis. I suppose I was duly warned when he insisted on using the word "techne" for "technology", arguing that this was apter and shorter even though it fails his own evident standard of matching the etymological root (which is from the Greek for "craftsmanship", a word that hardly suits the mechanical, usua ...more
Oct 17, 2009 Sonky rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Sonky by: Linksbard
What a journey. My brother sent me the book a few months ago--June, I think b/c it was shortly after his birthday.

500 years of the world's dominant culture, the culture that brought you the notion of culture.

Barzun's style, after you are accustomed to it enough to read it at all, is flowing but pithy; that makes for what I call a dense read. My tramp through this book's 800 or so pages of story excluding the 100 pages of end materials, was conducted on bus and toilet seats, a paragraph here and
Feb 22, 2007 Elaine rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: history buffs, general audience
As I indicated, this book is great for history buffs and a general audience alike. Barzun provides a comprehensive, broad, yet original and insightful history on the last 500 years of Western culture. Although I recall the description salaciously advertising this book as a manifesto against contemporary culture in all of its decadence, Barzun spends most of his time documenting the intellectual accomplishments of man, from the Renaissance through the Romantic era. He challenges the dominant scho ...more
Fantastic. 500 year overview of Western culture and history in just over 800 pages by a man with a wide and deep understanding of his subject. If you could read just one book on "Western Civilization", this would be it, but it's not a book for beginners. For instance, due to my weak knowledge of the arts and music, it was a little rough both getting through and understanding his review and critiques of those areas. Warning: If you judge people, history, art, politics and literature based upon yo ...more
Mk Miller
If a killer comet were heading towards earth, and I had a space escape capsule and a go-bag with room for only one book in it (to teach the kids some history and culture from) it would be this book. Not only is Barzun at his best here, but the organization is pretty wild too - the way themes recur, the way cultural notables are introduced and covered, the way they're provided as a reference point to others, the way places are used to describe a period - all of it is great, and a unique approach ...more
This work provides a panoramic and magisterial view on the culture of Western Civilization from 1500-2000. I found it difficult to lay down the first time I read it. I still often dip into sections or themes within it. A very useful overview of the cultural history of the modern and early-modern eras in western thought and cultural activity. Dawn to Decadence increased my appreciation in the accomplishments of Western Civilization and Culture, while renewing my faith in the possibilities such an ...more
This is quite likely the best history book on Western civilization I have ever read. When reading this book, you literally feel as though you are sitting in a well-informed and well-educated professor of history. The book delves into some of the most important contributors of civilization throughout this era: authors, artists, scuptures, playwriters, and themes. You won't find much about war in the book. This book is principally about the historical themes of Western civilization. At the end of ...more
Nicholas Katopol
One of the greatest books in cultural and intellectual history inspired by Diderot's Encyclopedie. Barzun is a declinist but not one of a particularly hopeless sort. He identifies several key themes in 'modern' Western civilization and how they have expressed themselves throughout the age. He identifies the crisis of the West, it's spiritual and intellectual decline, rife with forms of art and culture that are essentially derivative of earlier and original works, the growth of the Demos and the ...more
Elizabeth S
Done! All done! I am so amazed with myself.

A very deep read. One of those that, to really enjoy, takes more time than just the reading time. It isn't a book to read, it is a book to experience. A book that, when you are done, you feel you know less than you thought you knew when you started. Overall, absolutely amazing.
A masterful cross section of cultural developments over the last five hundred years. Large in scale, without skimping on detail overly much, this book displays a lifetime of experiencing and thinking about culture in it's widest application. If the book had ended at the 19th century I would have given this book a five star rating. The very end of the book and it's bitter condemnation of anything that has been done, thought and grown since 1920 stings and feels unreal. The tendency to reject this ...more
Quite simply the best overview of the last 500 years that I've read, by a master sylist who is well versed on every topic. Barzun explores life from numerous angles, making this account of history lively and eminently readable. It is a massive tome that will take some time to get through, but it is well worth the effort.
The scope and the clarity of his vision are staggering. There is a wry humour here which crops up from time to time, giving the dense, dry prose an enjoyable kick. Barzun does not tell you; he imparts in the reader an understanding, and allows you, even invites you, to draw your own conclusion. I can't recommend it enough.
Steve Dufour
I am now about 3/4 through this book. Really amazing. I did catch a few mistakes. For instance before 1492 Native Americans did not have pet cats.
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Jacques Martin Barzun was a French-born American historian of ideas and culture.
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