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Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle To Determine A True And Accurate Year

3.84  ·  Rating details ·  929 ratings  ·  69 reviews
The adventure spans the world from Stonehenge to astronomically aligned pyramids at Giza, from Mayan observatories at Chichen Itza to the atomic clock in Washington, the world's official timekeeper since the 1960s. We visit cultures from Vedic India and Cleopatra's Egypt to Byzantium and the Elizabethan court; and meet an impressive cast of historic personages from Julius ...more
Paperback, 301 pages
Published June 1st 1999 by Harper Perennial (first published July 1st 1998)
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Average rating 3.84  · 
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N.J. Ramsden
If popular science is your bag, this will go some way to filling up a corner - plenty of interesting material here about various aspects of the calendar as it is and has been, in various periods and cultures, and the science, numbers and reasoning behind it all.

My major gripe with this book is the sheer quantity of errors it contains - figures are bungled, names are wrong, facts incorrectly reported - anybody who has read other books on the matter will spot these a mile off. Sometimes Duncan
...more
Frank Roberts
One gets the sense that the author felt the material on the actual calendar wasn't quite long enough for a book, and had to bulk the text out. Half of the book doesn't deal with the calendar at all, but rather digresses into lengthy exposition on how barbaric and benighted the middle ages were. There are also digressions into the history of our number system and into various other sorta-kinda related topics. I would have much preferred the author stuck to the topic.

Also, minor errors that were
...more
Acquafortis
Jul 18, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A appealing fact-jammed book about something we use everyday - the calendar.
I never thought there were so many events and people involved in its story dating back to time immemorial. Facts at times amusing, others outright dramatic.
It's fascinating the interplay between time and who dictates it. Control over time and its deployment gives boundless power to the beholder that usually one can't even ponder.
Last one on the list is the Roman Catholic Church, who's reform on the calendar is the one
...more
booklady
May 19, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: anyone who likes trivial and/or time study(s)
Shelves: history, 2002, 2001
Was combing my history shelves -- for something else -- and pulled this down. Remembered what a fascinating read it was. Tells all about how the modern calendar developed. This was a 'reading room' (AKA powder room) read which is why it took almost a year to finish, but still I did read the entire book. Never knew what a complicated thing Time and its tracking is.
Josette
Jun 30, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adult
This is a really interesting book. It's a little hard to get through in parts, but I gave it 5 stars because it's just so darn fascinating. Did you know about the 10 days that were removed from the calendar by Pope Gregory in 1582 (but not until 1752 in the American colonies?) Read this book and you'll know!
Deborah Pickstone
Interesting examination of the concept of time, how the calendar (linear time) evolved and how human-made time doesn't reconcile with time as it happened and the confusion sown along the way by various interferences and the intersection of several different calendars. And all you asked was 'what time is it?' :)
Tracy Black
Feb 15, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: history lovers
At first I was disappointed that this was a history of only the western calendar. All others got, at best, a brief mention. But this was a THOROUGH history, of not only the calendar, but of the science and politics that influenced it. This is a well-written, worthy read.
Jennifer (the_pumpkin_reads)
The beginning with all the facts was interesting, but the book became more and more dry. I skimmed the last 70ish pages.

2.5 stars
Jane Elliot
Jan 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
one of my all time favourite books
Thanh Nguyen-Kim
Apr 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very intesting!
Different civilization kept track of time by their way (I love those written figures of months and numbers).
Also numbers weren't the same as we had. Number 0 and decimals revolutionized the numbering of days in a year.
Lunar, solar, lunisolar calendar - I am still confuses with the concept.
Trying to capture the true value of tropical year.
Relying on position of star as signal for a new year >> a sidereal year.
Sequencing of days within a month, how many months and months a
...more
Caitlin
Jun 06, 2018 rated it liked it
A good read and as easy for a lay-person to understand as I think possible when it comes to talking about the intricacies of time. (Which means I didn't understand everything, but enough to come away with a comprehensive understanding).

My biggest beef is the obvious anti-Byzantine, anti-Eastern Europe historical bias. While giving due justice to the influence of Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, and Islamic figures, the book should be more precisely termed "Europe's Epic Struggle to Create a Year
...more
Jacob Lehman
Interesting story of how the Gregorian calendar came to be/take over Europe and the world, but some clear editorial lapses (the math doesn't hold up in some places on the number of years in between events or the various calendars running slow/fast).

I read this as part of my project to read one book from every aisle of Olin Library at Cornell; you can read my reactions to other books from the project here: https://jacobklehman.com/

A fuller review/reaction will follow on my website.

Debi Emerson
Dec 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
In a book that reads like a novel, the author does an excellent job of tracing man's struggle to develop accurate ways to keep track of time, from a caveman's earliest efforts involving scratching hashmarks on a bone through the various calendars used to today's use of an atomic element that ends up actually being a bit TOO accurate. A very interesting & entertaining read!
Alyssa Macpherson
At first this was an interesting read, but as I read more the lustre has worn off. The author is focussing on his own narrative over historical detail and sometimes even facts.

This is especially egregious in the chapters about the early Middle Ages, wherein the fall of Rome is portrayed as hordes of bloodthirsty barbarians destroying something glorious without reason, while St. Augustine and the church hate time and science but need them to calculate Easter.

Someone got all their history from
...more
Jan van Trigt
Fascinating book abput the journey of mankind on how to define a year and how sun and moon determine "a month". The best counting was done in the middle east. Fun to read.
Rizwan
Oct 22, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very detailed but sometimes overly so, with the narrative getting slightly lost.
Carolyn
Feb 01, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is no year zero. Have you thought about that? Once up a time--here is the word-- the subject of this thought-provoking book: time. Go back a mere five hundred years and people would rise with the sun, perhaps here a newfangled church bell rang at a nearby monastery, toil until the sun set, and then go to bed in order to repeat the same events the next day. Time had not been divided into hours and who needed a calendar to record a day that would be the same as its predecessors. Time has ...more
Stephanie
Apr 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A deliciously scholarly book on the history and difficulties of creating accurate calendars across the centuries. If you think this sounds boring as hell, let me quote from the cover, "David Duncan takes his place in the ranks of the best explainers in print" (Hugh Downs).

I had a dim notion that politics likely had a bearing on the adoption of our current calendar (which it did and does), what I did not realize was how much religion was a factor. Duncan emphasizes the conceptual differences
...more
Sue
Apr 18, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, science, culture
This is a 5-star book up through about the year 1100. That's when most of the groundwork was done on our calendar. You get the story behind the naming of the months and the days and why and to whom having a calendar was important. Who would have guessed how complicated Easter would make things? There's even bonus coverage on how Europeans moved from Roman numerals to Arabic numerals and the positional notation that can come with such a system.

It becomes a 2-star book for the next 500 years
...more
Nicole
My favorite aspect of microhistories is how the book's subject is a lens through which you view much more of history than you originally expect. Honestly, how much can a book talk specifically about cod/milk/toilets/cochineal/paper/a calendar, the thing? You'd run out of details about the specific thing pretty quickly, especially in a popular history book meant for general consumption. It's the context that I really love - the reasons that the thing mattered, or didn't matter; the historical ...more
Paul
Jun 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Day to day, our time is marked by weeks, months and years. We take it for granted that no matter where you are on earth, you always know where you are in time. The calendar is such a routine concept that it takes excellent and most engaging book by David Ewing Duncan to make you stop and think.

This book traces the origins, offshoots and upsets of the epic tale of the calendar. In doing so, Duncan finds a thread through all peoples over all time.

Which is really the genius of David Duncan's work.
...more
Adarsh Mishra
Well- this book would have earned a 4 star easily for me had it been titled "The Western Calendar". as while it goes in depth about the rise/development of Gregorian calendar; there is hardly any justice done to the likes of Hindu Panchang, or the Chinese calendars. The problem offcourse is that not much written material of excellence exist about them anyways.
also as is the case is with most western authors, there are a few gaffe of history most of which could be attributed to the fact that the
...more
Jareed
There are things we take for granted either because of sheer ignorance of the history of development involved in their genesis or either they have been condemed to suffer a lackluster disposition compared to modern conveniences that have definitely occupied our questionable preferences. The calender suffers in both aspects, which is giddily overturned courtesy of this book.
It is an objective post-modern work, which I may add, is relative to the author's background. The book does not contain
...more
Tim
May 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A triumph of history. Not only does it spell out the origins of our system of months, years, weeks, hours and so on, but it also contains a lengthy digression on the origins of our base-10 positional numbering system, which gives a great insight into why it was so difficult to be mathematically accurate for people who only used roman numerals or cuneiform script. It also cuts across a huge amount of social history, telling us en passant about the decline of the Roman Empire and the huge ...more
Brigitte
Apr 19, 2010 rated it really liked it
Do you know what the 31 days of August has to do with the Emperor Augustus? Or why there are seven days in a week and not some other random number? Have you ever sat in a pot induced stupor and wondered why humans decided to start keeping time in the first place? If you've answered yes to any of these questions, then this is the book for you!

Overall, very, very entertaining read which probably deserves five stars, but the heady mathematics involved knocked it down a peg for me. Would definitely
...more
Tanya
Apr 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love books that are the history of a concept or thing (salt, tea, E=MC2) so this book was right up my alley. I especially liked that the author included some substantial bits of history while still sticking to the calendar theme. It would have been easy to get sidetracked by some of the famous personalities that were involved with the creation of present-day timekeeping. But Duncan did not do this - he'd fill out details that were important to the development of accurate timekeeping but then ...more
Stephen
Jan 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
This was a well written account of the long struggle to create an accurate ongoing calendar of days. This task was much more difficult than I ever imagined. consider: do you use the moon as your base? The Sun? All the obvious ways of calculating the number of days in a year are inaccurate. A great irony is that the latest nuclear clocks are actually too precise because they fail to take into account the declining speed of the earth's rotation.
Laura
Sep 24, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: everyone!
Shelves: non-fiction
This book focuses mainly on the calendar of that the Western world uses, and how it came into being. It does touch on various other calendars (Hebrew, Mayan, etc.) but does not explore these in depth. There is a good amount of math, which I found myself either going over several times to try and understand or skimming over in order to maintain focused on the story. Don't let this stop you though, because the book is really very interesting and quite well written.
Leslie
Mar 22, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting and unusual look at history from the viewpoint of the development of the calendar and keeping time. Not a fast read as there are a lot of historical details and people involved in the equation of what is the best way to keep track of time in a world with a complicating set of circumstances that make making a calendar difficult. I learned a lot about some people that I had no idea existed and about some famous people and their attitudes toward time. Good read!
Rachel Kopel
May 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
It is going to take me a very long time to remember all of the wonderful books I have read, but I am really enjoying making this record of them.

Dividing time into day and night, and even the sequence of the moon, both make sense as measurements of time. But where did the week come from?? And what about the hours. And eventually time zones, etc. This book is a fascinating account of the process and the way people lived while it was all being sorted out.
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David Ewing Duncan is the author of seven books including the worldwide bestseller Calendar. He is Chief Correspondent of public radio's Biotech Nation, a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition, and a contributing editor and a columnist for Conde Nast Portfolio. He has been a contributing editor to Wired, Discover and Technology Review, and has written for Harper s, The Atlantic, Fortune, and many ...more
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