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

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  4,198 ratings  ·  273 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, 828 pages
Published May 15th 2001 by Harper Perennial (first published January 1st 2000)
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Matt One could argue that this book is good for someone with your criterion: not having learned much about history. Barzun looks at history, specifically c…moreOne could argue that this book is good for someone with your criterion: not having learned much about history. Barzun looks at history, specifically cultural history, by analyzing specific individuals that he feels propounded important (not necessarily good or bad) ideas during his/her time in history.

I think one of Barzun's ideas with this book is to be able to get an idea of history as a whole by learning about the individuals constituting that history, and then extrapolating modern or future conditions.

That being said, his writing is both exact and lax. I would recommend reading his words slowly, and if you're hung up on an idea (or even a phrase or word), stop and take some time to look it up. Use notes and highlighters if necessary so that you don't forget what you've learned. Stopping every so often to familiarize yourself with a word, person, or idea can become tiresome, but it is required for learning and being able to understand the author's argument.

Try reading this book again -- maybe even start at an era that you're already familiar with so as to get an idea of how Barzun sheds light on ideas and people during that time. Then transition to unfamiliar territory (unfamiliar history) with his approach in mind.(less)

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Apr 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history_general
This is Barzun's “magnum opus”: an original, multi-faceted, ambitious interpretation of the cultural history of the West of the last half millennium. This is a unique, idiosyncratic, provocative work that is definitely not a linear, dispassionate account, but a critical, personal and thorough re-evaluation of the modern era.

Before getting into the merits of this important work, it is necessary to highlight that this book is quite heavily weighted towards what is commonly called “the fine arts”
Sep 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing

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
Nov 05, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 11, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
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
Sep 17, 2020 is currently reading it
September 28, 2020: This book is phenomenal! It is so rich I am in awe of what the author knows and has read. Almost every other paragraph has this statement, “The book to read for further information is...” Not that I want to read all of them, but I keep making note of those I do and have significantly added to my ‘to-read’ list! I also keep learning all these little tidbits of information, not to mention the famous quotes which pepper the pages, at least one to every two-page spread. He provid ...more
David Withun
Jun 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, history
Bob Mustin
Oct 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 -
Boris Glebov
Feb 05, 2018 rated it liked it
A book to read with your pinky out.

Barzun's erudition is dazzling. Analysis, however, is often absent or rather shallow. A good analogy for this work is like that first intro paragraph of a Wikipedia article. It gives you a great sense of the subject without any considerable depth, just few key highlights aside.

He does draw a few arcs of ideas throughout the 500 years of Western European history, but that insight is nothing groundbreaking. The greatest value is his intricate knowledge of an endl
Oct 03, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: books-i-own
This one was a bit of an impulse buy. Generally, I am one to do my due diligence with book purchases by reading reviews both favorable and unfavorable. Seeing the praise being lavished upon this work with so few exceptions, however, I decided to throw caution to the wind and give this a try. Regrettably, this haphazard approach did not pay off.

Admittedly, I did not finish this book, plodding through 200 or so pages, and so cannot give this book the fair, and thoroughgoing review it deserves cons
Todd Stockslager
Jun 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Review title: Draw up a chair; Jacques Barzun has a treasure map to share
The treasure is the inheritance of the 500 years of Western cultural life of Barzun's subtitle that is at my fingertips today. The map is Barzun's lifework documented in 800-plus pages of hard-learned and hand-drawn (as it were) survey marking the the routes to the treasure caches that have been created, assembled, saved, and lost over the five centuries of modern Western culture.

While this is a survey in the grand professo
Michael Canoeist
The work of Jacques Barzun's lifetime -- how could a reader not profit from this summary of so much of what this scholar and thinker had studied in his generous span? [Editing in a good example of his take on a subject most are familiar with -- how we read, he says misread, Hamlet; see farther below...]
Since he lived to 105, that makes for a lot of curiosity, thought, and learning. This summary of modern western civilization was published in 2000 when Barzun was 93, although it reads like the wo
How did we get to where we are today in Western culture? One of my favorite books of all time, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, seeks to answer that question. Specifically, Taylor looks at how we moved from believing in God,mostly without question, in 1500 to having many options today. When I saw this book at the used bookstore, I was intrigued because of the topic (and the great deal!). But though Barzun covers the same period as Taylor, his book is quite different.

As I read the book I perused
Brad Lyerla
Oct 06, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
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
Lauren Albert
Oct 04, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-world
This was an excellent overview which turned into a diatribe against (what he sees as) the modern world. The last 20 pages or so are so odd that I was dizzy. Fraud as a substitute for artistic creativity (because everyone wants to be an artist, of course, and fraud is an apt substitute)? Terrible literary biographers actually "Interview surviving contemporaries." This is just a selection. I would say--read the whole thing until he gets to his vision of today (when he wrote the book). I knew he wa ...more
Jan 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Craig Fiebig
May 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
Critical review of 500 years of intellectual development and retreat. Skewers the isms and 'wings' with equal veracity, my preferred style. Excellent survey, likely best to read rather than to listen as the detail requires a bit of replay. ...more
Feb 13, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
3.5 stars
Tso William
Feb 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: filosofie
"There is a poem by the modern Greek poet, Cavafy, in which he imagines the people of an antique town like Alexandria waiting every day for the barbarians to come and sack the city. Finally the barbarians move off somewhere else and the city is saved; but the people are disappointed – it would have been better than nothing. (…) Vigour, energy, vitality: all the great civilisations – or civilising epochs – have had a weight of energy behind them. People sometimes think that civilisation consists ...more
Eric Morse
Mar 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This Book Is 11,856 Pages Long

After having read Jacques Barzun's summa 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 firs
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
It's good for me to read a book that takes me out of my comfort zone by reading a book like this one that mostly talks about the fine arts and written by a curmudgeon. If I had started reading this in the year 2000, I would have stopped, but today I found his obvious retrograde beliefs charmingly anachronistic.

I hate to dwell on the author's obviously curmudgeonly ways since they really aren't the heart of the book. He writes a good survey of fine arts. In the beginning of the book he goes chro
Jan 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
From Dawn to Decadence is the masterwork of an accomplished author whose cultural knowledge is both broad and deep. Moving from 1500 to 1995, Barzun takes the reader by the hand directing attention to both well and little known people and the activities that characterized the most recent centuries of Western civilization.

Barzun identifies themes that connect one period to another, making them stand out with capitalization. EMANCIPATION, INDIVIDUALISM, PRIMITIVISM and ABSTRACTION are four. These
Ken Lawrence
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 22, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Josh Friedlander
An enjoyable and opinionated stroll through 500 years of Western Civ, very much reminiscent of Will and Ariel Durant - with both their strengths and weaknesses. (They may have overlapped: Durant was an "instructor" at Columbia University sometime after receiving his doctorate in 1917; Barzun was the 1927 valedictorian and remained affiliated for life.) Barzun has an encyclopedic knowledge of his field and firm opinions on most subjects. Frequently he will reject a commonplace idea or an artistic ...more
May 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
"The general public read the popularizers. Their work can be excellent, but more often it is a catchy recital without the life-giving ingredient of vision."

Barzun's criticism of popular history here provides the perfect reason to appreciate his book, it is a work of vision. Barzun traces modern Western Cultural history from its "Dawn" in 1500 to its "Decadence" around 2000. Along the way, Barzun pauses to elucidate on an astonishing number of topics and figures of the West and uses four major r
An Idler
Nov 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A magisterial work, magnificent in scope. The produce of a life of studied reflection. Barzun wrote in his old age on a topic haunted by themes of decline, decadence, and endings - the work is therefore necessarily elegiac. But Barzun is too tough and too practical to indulge in kitschy boo-hooing like other authors who observe a downward trend to the graph of Western culture. Barzun is the most shrewd of the anti-modern moderns.

I suspect this book's audience knows itself. In case you're delibe
Erica Clou
Oct 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Erica by: James Shute
I did not especially enjoy reading this which is why I initially gave up after 200 pages. But I hate quitting things, and this is one of my dad's books, so I persisted. It's definitely interesting the way he handles European culture of 500 years, which is too long a time period even for a book this long, but it was a good try.

I initially was thinking 3 stars, but I bumped up my stars when I got to the end and read his summation of more modern history. I wonder how I would have viewed the previo
Brian Griffith
This is a masterfully in-depth survey of cultural evolution. Barzun goes several layers of fame down, to show the significance of numerous poorly remembered innovators, whose contributions rival those of more often-repeated names. For just one example we have Lady Marquise de Ramboullet, who in the 1600s opened her Paris salon, dedicated to high-minded conversation between men and women. The issues her guests discussed included government, science, or the church -- subjects which were previously ...more
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Jacques Martin Barzun was a French-born American historian of ideas and culture.

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