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

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  4,028 ratings  ·  250 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
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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…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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WarpDrive
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”
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Bentley
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
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Szplug
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
David Withun
Jun 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, favorites
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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 -
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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
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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
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David
Oct 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
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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
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Andrew
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
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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.
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Rachel
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
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 ...more
Paula
Jul 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Those interested in the History of Ideas
Recommended to Paula by: Amazon.com
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 ...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.
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
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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
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Clif
Jan 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
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
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Ken Lawrence
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Michael
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
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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
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Shane
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
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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
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Ericka Clouther
Oct 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Ericka 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
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Vlad Golovach
850+ pages of non-diluted joy. The longest book I have ever read, thanks to great number of "read more about it in X" detractions which forced me to read couple of great books in between (and more left in in the queue). The style is great. The brevity is amazing. The scope is broad. The analysis is succinct. What more can we ask for?
Jamie
Dec 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This is a magisterial work of history, an extended tour of the key cultural events of the past five hundred years. It is astonishing in its depth and insight, the kind of book that can change a reader’s views about the developments that led to the modern world. Barzun’s key thesis is summed up in the very first paragraph of the book, “It takes only a look at the numbers to see that the 20th century is coming to an end. A wider and deeper scrutiny is needed to see that in the West the culture of ...more
Sarah Finch
Jul 21, 2017 rated it liked it
A bit conflicted. This is a tremendous work that reflects years of commitment to studying the anointed western canon of the past half-millennium, and Barzun is a writer whose gifts include both elegance and clarity. It is a rigorous and rewarding read. However, his blind spot for the contributions of women and how western culture inhibited their canonization (and some very strange interpolations of his gendered notions in random spots), his mistaken belief that the American Civil Rights Movement ...more
Dierregi
Jul 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, history
This book is a masterpiece. Rarely have I enjoyed myself so much reading an essay. Barzun presents the past 500 years of Europe’s cultural and historical events with insight and sense of humour. Needless to say, Barzun was a man of immense erudition, but also witty and unsentimental about the cultural future of the Western world.

He offers his dispassionate examination of European and North American decadence in the preface. In a few concise and pitiless paragraph we get the unpleasant truth
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Paul Gosselin
Sep 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
There is a LOT to digest in this 800 page work. I have to admit that the last 100 page were a bit tedious, but overall, reading this book was time well spent. It does take quite a while before Barzun puts his cards on the table regarding the title of his book and explains what he means by "decadence". As for the perspective of this work, Barzun’s worldview is, for the most part, moulded by the Enlightenment though he does allow himself some critical distance (more obvious in an older work, ...more
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Jacques Martin Barzun was a French-born American historian of ideas and culture.
“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.” 20 likes
“The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect form.” 13 likes
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