Alex's Reviews > Civilization: A New History of the Western World

Civilization by Roger Osborne
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's review
Jan 02, 2015

it was amazing
bookshelves: middle-ages, 2010, reading-through-history, rth-lifetime
Read from March 23 to April 10, 2010


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Comments (showing 1-29 of 29) (29 new)

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message 1: by Jayme (last edited Mar 12, 2010 07:06PM) (new) - added it

Jayme I read some reviews of this and it looks a little dubious to me. Might be more opinion than historical fact. Dude apparently doesn't even list a bibliography. It sounds awesome though, and I could be wrong.

P.S. How is there only 5 books on your to-read list?!

Alex Heh. On Amazon, my to-read list is about 200 books long and organized by country. I'm trying to control myself here: stay focused. It's already hard.

Civilization is a recommendation from some dude here. NY Times liked it, and it fills a certain need for me. I was irritated with myself when I read the Communist Manifesto and realized I didn't know anything about communism, or capitalism, or why we were so worked up about whatever the difference is.

You were complaining about the ubergeeky history book debate; the embarrassing truth is, I know a lot about ancient history and literally nothing about recent history. If you ask me when the Civil War happened, I have to look it up. Last year I started in ancient Iraq and started working my way up through Western history. (Which does start in Iraq, as much as it doesn't like it.) I hope this book helps.

And I hope it's not dubious. If you point me to dubious reviews, though, it will influence me hugely. There's nothing I hate as much as bad history.

That's not true, I hate a ton of things worse than bad history. Like Nazis. Not crazy about Nazis. And ketchup! Don't like that either.

message 3: by Jayme (new) - added it

Jayme I put ketchup on everything! You suck.

I can't find the review that made me not want to read it anymore, so you'll just have to tell me if it sucks or not. I'll send a link if I find it though.

Alex And that proves that you are a Nazi. I hope you're happy.

message 5: by Jayme (new) - added it

Jayme I even used to put it on my eggs. So if I had hashbrowns too, my plate was a sea of ketchup. Ketchup goes on all things breakfast and most things dinner and lunch.

This is really off topic so I'm going to stop spamming your review page.

Alex Yeah, I was getting really upset about that. Didn't sleep at all for like four nights, just stewing about this comment thread.

I'm, what, 15% done with this now. The intro is fascinating; I have no idea whether I agree or not, but it gave me a lot to think about.

He's a little all over the map so far. I'm in ancient Greece, and I thought his comments on Oedipus were really smart: he points out that Oedipus is a rational man who tries to find out the truth about his parents, and that insistence on knowledge is what kills him. Otherwise, he could happily have f'ed his mom for the rest of his life. So in some ways what Sophocles is doing is railing against the shift between a more fate-based outlook and the coming rationalist movement (as championed by Socrates).

But I think he's pretty far off on Socrates: he implies Socrates believed fervently in democracy, which is false. Socrates actually believed in oligarchy (rule by the few); he thought democracy was a disaster, which is one of many reasons why they ended up killing him. I'm not through this section yet, so maybe Osborne will backtrack at some point, but as it stands, that's a pretty big mistake.

message 7: by Jason (new)

Jason Clay What can I say in defense I am not a historian Alex and I am not going to defend Osbourne word for word. I probably have lower standards than you. Remember though he has to cover hundreds of years in a comparatively short book, so you have to make some allowances for fact checking.

Alex Y'know what, I just searched through the bit on Socrates and I can't find him saying that at all. I may have misread. Uh...oops.

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads And what are you up to now?

message 10: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Still just Greece.

message 11: by El (new)

El You're slow.

message 12: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex *crying*

message 13: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Honestly, I'm really coming around to this book. Again, it's covering a lot of ground, so it makes sweeping generalizations, but to my knowledge, Osborne's not saying anything wrong. In the passage I just read, for example, Osborne says that (circa 800) while Charlemagne sent envoys east to the Arab empire, "Persians and Arabs did not trouble to come to Europe." That's not strictly true; somewhat famously, Haroun al'Rashid (Charlemagne's contemporary and the now-grown-up star of Arabian Nights) sent an elephant all the way to Charlemagne's court. But it was a token, not a real mission; in a larger sense, Osborne is correct. For the birds-eye view he's giving, and with the knowledge I have to check against it, he's getting things right; and it's not hard to follow, like so many other birds-eye books I've read. I'm still only a third of the way through, but I'm really impressed so far.

message 14: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Up through the Reformation now and still digging it. I was curious about how this would go when I got into territory I'm not as familiar with yet; Jason and I are opposites in that my area of knowledge is further back, and yours is further forward. I was somewhat worried I'd be lost without a solid foundation in the history Osborne covers. But no, he's doing a clear enough job that I still feel like I know what's going on.

And he's continuing to make interesting points. It may be an obvious point to Renaissance experts, but I hadn't realized that the artistic explosion of the period came about in, and in part because of, a huge political clusterfuck; Italy was in utter turmoil during that time. We glorify that period, but aside from the undeniable artistic advances, societally speaking we were still just inching forward; it's not like we suddenly ended the Dark Ages, "Woo! That sucked. Good thing Michelangelo got born."

I will say that at times Osborne's writing style is a touch clunky. Nothing big, just details like a comma where a semicolon might have been better. That's just nitpicking though.

message 15: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Example of the sometimes-less-than-graceful prose:

After the 30 Years War from 1618 to 1648, "Germany's population was reduced from 21 to 13 million, its cities were in ruins; agriculture..."

That sentence isn't technically right.

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads Ouch. Yes, I see what you mean.

message 17: by JSou (new)

JSou Are you still reading this? Is it at least good?

message 18: by Jayme (new) - added it

Jayme Wow, 5 stars? That's a big commitment.

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads Well, glad it was worth your time despite the occasional clunker of a sentence!

message 20: by Aimeeeastwood (new)

Aimeeeastwood Someone on goodreads said this book was "slovenly and mean". Wow, I agree with you on the semicolon usage, but slovenly?

I'm loving this book as a person who wants a quick history overview - he does a nice job of making sense of chronology for me. But then, I'm a history idiot, and I'm only at Socrates. So take that with a grain of salt.

message 21: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Aw man, this is one of those threads I somehow got unsubscribed to, so I didn't realize comments had been made.

Yeah Jessica, it took me ages. It's big!

But yes Jayme, I ended up giving it five stars and buying a physical copy (after buying it on Kindle). I think it's terrific. Osborne's perspective on various periods of history is really smart; when I enter a new era (like rightnow's Renaissance), I refer back to his chapter on it to refresh myself.

So when my buddy Aimee there asked for advice on how to fill in the gaps in her history knowledge, which are apparently the period between Genesis and last week, this was one of the first books that came to mind. High praise, man. It's a cool book.

message 22: by Jayme (new) - added it

Jayme You guys are making it sound pretty cool. I might have to add it to the list...

message 23: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars


By the way, Aimee and I got married (not to each other) on the exact same day four years ago. Happy anniversaries, us!

message 24: by Jayme (last edited Aug 19, 2010 08:32AM) (new) - added it

Jayme Is it today? Cause in that case, "Happy Aniversary, Alex & Kirstin and Aimee & Dude(aka Jim)"

message 25: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Yep! Today! Yay! Aimee's husband's name is Jim and he is awesome although I've never actually met him.

message 26: by Jayme (last edited Aug 19, 2010 08:33AM) (new) - added it

Jayme Well I hope you guys are up to no good tonight! And I expect some drunken reviews in my inbox come morning.

message 27: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Heh. Big dinner out is tomorrow; I don't know if we're doing something tonight. We usually celebrate anniversaries by doing whatever we most enjoy doing together at the moment; so our first anniversary was getting high and watching an Attenborough documentary about bugs, second was hiking, last year was cooking an elaborate meal together...this year we're kinda still about cooking.

Susanna - Censored by GoodReads Happy Anniversary!

message 29: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex "In return for the removal of unpredictable injury from their lives, the state places its subjects under a permanent threat of violence."

- Hobbes paraphrased by Osborne

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