Jim's Reviews > The Age of Napoleon

The Age of Napoleon by Will Durant
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's review
May 11, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, france

In this era of professional historians, who, in their haste to be seen as "scholarly oxen," focus in on narrower and narrower subjects, it is delightful to look back at Will and Ariel Durant's incredible The Story of Civilization. In eleven volumes, ending with this one, the two attempted to cover the history of Western Civilization from the beginnings to the death of Napoleon on St. Helena.

What I admire most about the Durants is their concentration on the cultural history of the era. Instead of describing battles in loving detail, they dispense quickly with them -- with not a single battle map. On the other hand, there are fascinating whole chapters dedicated to the Lake Poets and the "Rebel Poets" of England, Beethoven, and German Philosophy.

I undertook to read The Age of Napoleon not to evade the academic rigors of more scholarly works, but to provide a good base for their more detailed work. Although a history buff, I had never read a good general study of the era. Fortunately, that's what the Durants are all about.

On the other hand, I felt that the French Revolution deserved more than the 155 pages dedicated to it. As I read on, I began to realize that the Napoleonic Wars were in fact the original world war. Involved were not only all the countries of Europe, but Turkey and the United States. (The War of 1812 was largely caused by impressment of American sailors by a Royal Navy pressed to stop Napoleon at all costs.) To be true to their original intent, they had to discuss the affects of Napoleon not only on France, but on England, Scotland, Ireland, the German states including Prussia, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Poland, Russia, Denmark, and Sweden. As a result, the French Revolution got short shrift.

Still, I am mightily impressed by what they have accomplished. Even this seeming flaw served only to emphasize the massive extent of the Napoleonic moment in history.

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Reading Progress

May 11, 2012 – Started Reading
May 11, 2012 – Shelved
May 11, 2012 –
page 33
May 11, 2012 – Shelved as: history
May 11, 2012 – Shelved as: france
May 14, 2012 –
page 62
May 15, 2012 –
page 88
May 17, 2012 –
page 179
May 18, 2012 –
page 260
May 20, 2012 –
page 352
May 22, 2012 –
page 413
May 23, 2012 –
page 503
May 25, 2012 –
page 600
May 26, 2012 –
page 693
May 27, 2012 –
page 870
May 27, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Justeenetta (new)

Justeenetta I'd be interested of a review of this book: durant is the favorite historian of my favorite teacher, an historian, geoffrey bret harte of very fond memory

message 2: by Mary Ronan (new)

Mary Ronan Drew This series by the Durants was looked down on in the 1950s and considered "middlebrow," a term of disdain at the time. But I bought it (from the BOMC, another disdained middlebrow institution) and if I'm able to put together a coherent timeline of Western Europe it's because of these books. I'm so glad to see you appreciate the Durants and what they have done. So much work!

message 3: by Ron (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ron On the contrary, for a book that had to cover so much ground I thought that the Fr.Revolution was covered quite well. Perhaps it deserved a volume unto itself, but by this time the Durants were wrapping this series up.

message 4: by Ted (new)

Ted Jim, this is a wonderful review. Your view of the book as an introduction seems spot on, and makes the book very enticing to me.

The Durants had expected the tenth volume to be their last, but managed to write this one also. They left behind notes for XII The Age of Darwin, and an outline of XIII The Age of Einstein.

The eleventh volume was published in 1975. Ariel Durant died in 1981 at the age of 83; Will Durant died thirteen days after Ariel, at the age of 96. They were married in 1913 when Ariel was fifteen years old, an emigre from Russia. Ariel was a pupil at the Ferrer Modern School in New York, at which Will was the principal.

message 5: by Mary Ronan (new)

Mary Ronan Drew Ted, what a beautiful love story. I had no idea about the Durants.

message 6: by Ted (new)

Ted Mary Ronan wrote: "Ted, what a beautiful love story. I had no idea about the Durants."

Nor did I, Mary. I just dug it out of Wiki. Married 68 years or thereabouts? Not only that, but if you take a look at the article on Will, the whole purpose of this grand undertaking (Story of Civ.) was to bring an appreciation of philosophy, history and the artistic side of human life to the masses. (Or something like that.) I had always assumed that it was just an historical work that was a bit more popular than usual, and perhaps a bit less rigorous academically. I'm all of a sudden very interested in it.

message 7: by Mary Ronan (new)

Mary Ronan Drew Ted, I've actually read the whole series - but I've had the books for . . . more than 30 years. I decided to re-read them recently but got sidetracked in the Roman volume. Time to go back to them again.

I think I'm the "masses" they were aiming for. I have an elaborate and lengthy education but honestly I learned most of what I know about the thread of history - what led to what, who lived at the same time as whom, why the zeitgeist changed at a particular time, . . . all of it from the Durants.

message 8: by Mary Ronan (new)

Mary Ronan Drew Jim, this is a good review. We are still talking about it 6 months later.

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