Bentley's Reviews > From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present

From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun
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Jan 22, 10

Read in June, 2009 — I own a copy, read count: 2

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 National Book Critics' Circle Award for this epic. For those folks who devote the time and the energy into actually reading and studying the book; this book is like a college program in cultural history. You will learn that much.

There are so many sidebar discussions and detours that one can take reading this book. I marveled at the knowledge and the breadth of Mr. Barzun's intellect. Yes, he did have a few opinions; but that made the reading that much more personal and sometimes controversial.

This bears a careful, slow and thoughtful reading. Those folks who want a quick mystery or want to be entertained by a book will not enjoy this work at all. If you give up on things easily, you will not have the stamina to complete this opus. This is not a Patterson or a Grafton novel.

If you love to be tested, be prodded into exploring ideas and different ways of thinking, you will love From Dawn to Decadence.

I found in our group discussions that those folks who just did not want to dive in and challenge themselves and/or had fitful starts and finishes as they read the book will not get anything out of the book at all; in fact those folks could not finish it and if they somehow finally held their nose and stuck it out...they did not enjoy the experience.

The book has to be read continuously so that all of the pieces fit together and the reader sees their dependencies; otherwise you will be totally lost and not see the causal relationships.

The book is really a marvel and easily 100 years of a lifelong love of learning is poured into this cultural history masterpiece by Barzun - this is really his life's work and all of his learning along with the touch of a brilliant mind really inspired me.

You may not always agree with some of his opinions and statements. I found more than a few of these (smile).

But what is even more remarkable is that Barzun, himself, would be happy that you challenged him or his ideas...that was the kind of professor he once was. So for those who do not give up easily and can persevere and accept challenges in learning and in life, this is the book for you.

If you want to be entertained, you will never finish this book or like it one be forewarned. It is a little like undertaking War and Peace without those beloved characters; it is more like reading a college text.

I was in awe of the book; but I can understand that it is not for everyone.
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Quotes Bentley Liked

Jacques Barzun
“Let us face a pluralistic world in which there are no universal churches, no single remedy for all diseases, no one way to teach or write or sing, no magic diet, no world poets, and no chosen races, but only the wretched and wonderfully diversified human race.”
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Sig (new)

Sig Rosenblum I haven't read this, but I will look it over. Andy Rooney of "60 Minutes" calls Barzun the smartest man he ever met. And he is treasured by many thousands of researchers and writers who cut their teeth on his co-authored guide, "The Modern Researcher." Anyone who is plunging into non-fiction writing of any kind should have this companion handy.

message 2: by Sig (new)

Sig Rosenblum Sorry, but I found this unreadable. It may have been my mood--rushed, preoccupied with my present opus--who knows? But I found it maddeningly abstract. And it seemed to violate every precept of the author of previous years, whom I revere. Sic transit....?

But thanks for the suggestion, pal.



message 3: by Bentley (last edited Jan 20, 2010 10:39AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bentley Sig wrote: "Sorry, but I found this unreadable. It may have been my mood--rushed, preoccupied with my present opus--who knows? But I found it maddeningly abstract. And it seemed to violate every precept of the..."

Hi Sig,

I did not vote for the Barzun selection; but being the moderator, I get to read it anyways. I think Andy Rooney is right, I also think you are correct too (if your mood is rushed) then this is the wrong book for that mood. This book defies being rushed. I think this book shows that the author is beginning to feel a little out of touch with technology and other things (including possibly not feeling that he is getting his due); but having said that his brain must be the size of the planet; and I am gaining a course full of information from this book. I find myself disagreeing with him every few pages or so; sometimes vehemently; but the ideas and the knowledge that he throws the reader's way is unbelievable and especially all of this work from a man of his age. Astounding. It is a very worthwhile read if you take it slowly.

Maybe you might want to revisit it at another time..or not. But I can certainly understand your feelings; I sometimes feel frustrated myself; but I am going to continue the journey.


message 4: by Eli (new) - added it

Eli Excellent review! I had bought From Dawn to Decadence and had begun to read it only a short week or so before the author's unfortunate passing. Since that time, I have felt indeed, exactly as you have, about the 150+ pages that I read, but then I started reading other books, and, alas, this one started collecting dust.

I'm going to read it again, and this time, all the way through. As far as I have read, Mr. Barzun's command of the English language in his writing is second only to Shakespeare (and I don't mean pedantic use of 'higher than thou' vocabulary, but brilliance and clarity of communication).

My tribute to this great, and most regrettably, deceased, man, is to read his monolithic epic of Western culture.

Bentley I agree with you Eli. Thank you for your kind words. I am very busy with The History Book Club so I do not always have time to spend on reviews. But this book was certainly "the one" that I had to spend the time to talk about. If you want to know about Western Culture - then this is "the book". I am sorry that Barzun passed because his mind is almost - "one of a kind". He could also convey his brilliance with his outstanding quality of writing as you aptly pointed out.

message 6: by Eli (new) - added it

Eli Once again, I read up to about the same space in the book, and then postponed it. I am still going to finish it, but it is truly like you said, something that, although being astonishing in what it seeks to accomplish, is nonetheless a mammoth work that will give no satisfaction to those with an instant-gratification mindset. However, I don't know how qualified I am to say this, given that I barely put a dent in it myself.

Please tell me, what is this 'History Book Club'? I have been meaning to find something along those lines (with History being my favorite subject).

I apologize for any lack of clarity - I am pretty tired right now.

Bentley Thank you for your comments Eli. I agree Barzun was such a talent and this work is like a four year study program in terms of the doors it opens with new ideas and other topics to pursue.

Sorry that I did not see your follow up until now. The History Book Club is a non fiction book club and we would certainly welcome you as a member if you are so inclined. Love history myself.

message 8: by Eli (new) - added it

Eli Honestly, I do not think that the quality of this work can be overstated, realistically. Of course, still having never read beyond his coverage of the 17th century, I am not entirely licensed to say that. Being among the first few serious works that I have attempted to read, it really inspired and challenged me. I will make a third attempt before too long.

Hey, not a problem! Actually, since we began this discussion, I have been considering a career as a(n?) historian, and even if I do not choose to make a profession of it, I will study it with childlike adoration and curiosity as long as I walk this Earth. In the same unfortunate manner as I have done with this work, I have made a habit of reading a fair portion of several popular histories (but never finishing them), and have made sporadic attempts at original historical writings, and other ancillary stuff. Just recently, I had been considering getting involved in something of this nature, and would really appreciate joining your club. Do you mind giving me some more details, and also, how might I join?

message 9: by Eli (new) - added it

Eli Sorry for the unnecessary question; I did a group search and found the club. Even still, thank you for the invite! I have truly been looking for something like this.

message 10: by Tso (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tso William I agree with this review, with the exception that the book is 'more like reading a college text'.
Most college textbooks, that I have read, are dry and plainly informative. Barzun's text, however, flows with beautiful prose that handles facts and opinions with grace and ease.

message 11: by Ed (new)

Ed Cottingham I was happy to "like" your excellent review although I have a somewhat different take on the entertainment value. Some of us -- obviously including you -- are highly entertained by richly stimulating ideas presented with grace, style, and care by such a learned man. But I know what you mean.

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