I want to tell you about two sets of books that are too long for most of us to read in a lifetime, and about a way to sample what is important in each set.
The first set is Will and Arial Durant’s magnificent 11 volume set The Story of Civilization. Their herculean undertaking began with a huge volume entitled Our Oriental Heritage, and ended with an equally huge volume entitled The Age of Napoleon. The Durants wanted to write a history that was principally focused on the west, and that would end somewhere in the early years of the twentieth century. But after 40 years or so, they had to give up their initial plan because of their ages. However, their efforts added up to almost 10,000 pages containing approximately four million words. And what words! Will Durant (who was listed as the sole author of the first six volumes) had a way of making history read as easily as an engrossing novel.
Perhaps because of the way the series was written, some historians belittled their books, but the public loved them, and millions of copies (including the set I own) were offered almost free by the Book-of-the-Month Club as an introductory offer. And despite the critics, the Durants were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1968 for Rousseau and Revolution, the tenth volume in the set.
I’m embarrassed to say that I have only read parts of some of the books, and will never complete the set. But I have often gone to the set to find out about particular events and notable people. I know I can count on the Durants to tell me what I want to know in a way that makes me reluctant to put the book down.
Will Durant realized that many of us would never read the series, so in the last few years of his long life he wrote a 329 page book in which he discusses some of the most interesting people and ideas from the entire series. The book is Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age. His “heroes” include Confucius, Buddha, Plato, Julius Caesar, Jesus, Saint Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius, Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo de Medici, John Wyclif, Martin Luther, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth, and Francis Bacon.
He also includes some of the peripheral people who are only remembered because they did things that influenced the actions of the book’s “heroes.” One of those people was Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar who was an excellent indulgence salesman. Tetzel was chosen to convince the people of Germany to buy the indulgences that the Church was selling to raise enough money to allow Pope Leo X to complete the basilica that Pope Julius II had begun. Of course Tetzel’s actions angered Martin Luther, and Luther’s actions lead to the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Durant describes Tetzel’s role this way:
Tetzel might have escaped history had he not approached too closely to the lands of Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony. Moved by reluctance to let the coin of Saxony emigrate, and perhaps by reports of Tetzel’s hyperbole, Frederick forbade the preaching of the 1517 indulgence in his territory. But Tetzel came so close to the frontier that people in Wittenberg crossed the border to obtain the indulgences. Several purchasers brought these “papal letters” to Martin Luther, professor of theology in the University of Wittenberg, and asked him to attest their efficacy. He refused. The refusal came to Tetzel’s ears; he denounced Luther and became immortal.
Durant also discusses well-known works of art including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. And like so many others, Durant was fascinated by her smile:
What is she smiling at? The efforts of the musicians to entertain her? The leisurely diligence of an artist who paints her through a thousand days and never makes an end? Or is it not just Mona Lisa smiling, but all women, saying to all men: “Poor impassioned lovers! A Nature blindly commanding continuance burns your nerves with an absurd hunger for our flesh, softens your brains with a quite unreasonable idealization of our charms, lifts you to lyrics that subside with consummation—and all that you may be precipitated into parentage! Could anyone be more ridiculous? But we too are snared; we women pay a heavier price than you for your infatuation. And yet, sweet fools, it is pleasant to be desired, and life is redeemed when we are loved.”
I know you’ve seen photographs of the Mona Lisa, but did you have such beautiful thoughts as those above when you saw it? To me, Will Durant had a unique way of describing things – whether it’s the story of a man who stumbled into immortality, or his musings about a woman in a painting who made him wonder about what she might have been thinking as she smiled.
Heroes of History gives us a wonderful sampling of the contents of the Durants’ complete Story of Civilization.
Back in January 2013 I wrote an article about two sets of books: the Harvard Classics and the Great Books of the Western World. In the article I noted that the Harvard Classics set is no longer available in book form, but is available at the Bartleby.com website. I have since learned that the set has been collected in a Kindle e-book edition with a price of $2.51. The set, both nonfiction and fiction, is composed of about 150 books, but I cannot say with certainty that the contents of the e-book are exactly the same as the original set of books.
I’ve also recently found a Kindle e-book entitled The Harvard Classics: A Liberal Education in 365 Days for the same price as the complete set. The book is a sampler of the Harvard Classics chosen by Amanda Kennedy. Understand that many of the selections presented in the sampler are portions of longer works, not the works in their entirety. Still, I like the book because you get a relatively short exposure to many authors and works over the period of a year. Kennedy has given each day’s selection a title that is meant to arouse interest (such as “If He Yawned, She Lost Her Head” for the January 7th selection), and each work is preceded by a short, informative paragraph about the author and/or the piece.
Here are a few examples of what this book contains:
- January 1 – Franklin’s Advice for the New Year (from his autobiography)
- January 2 – School-Day Poems of john Milton (a selection of poems by Milton)
- January 7 – If He Yawned, She Lost Her Head (from The Thousand and One Nights)
- February 20 – Voltaire Observes the Quakers (from his Letters on the English)
- March 6 – West Point’s Outcast, America’s First Great Poet (features Poe’s “The Raven”)
- March 8 – Dangerous Experiment with a Wife (the story of Anselmo, Lothario, and Camilla from Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote)
- April 2 – A Spoon Dances in the Moonlight (Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle)
- April 15 – O Captain! My Captain! (a poem by Walt Whitman)
- May 3 – Why “Machiavellian”? (an excerpt from Machiavelli’s The Prince)
- May 14 – Jenner’s Amazing Smallpox Cure (three publications by Jenner on vaccination against smallpox)
- June 12 – Vishnu Holds Up a Battle (a selection from The Bhagavad-Gita)
- June 19 – Enchanting Songs of David (selections from the Book of Psalms)
- July 6 – The Origin of “Utopia” (a selection from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia)
- July 22 – Trapped in a Cave with a Frenzied Giant (a selection from Homer’s The Odyssey)
- August 4 – World’s Greatest Bedtime Stories (“The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen)
- September 8 – When Europe Lay Under Ice (a lecture by Hermann von Helmholtz)
- October 4 – His Mouth Full of Pebbles (“Demostenes” from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans)
- October 24 – Clytemnestra Meets Her Rival (from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon)
- November 1 – Last Strokes of Shakespeare’s Pen (part of The Tempest)
- November 17 – At Thirty Scott Began to Write (Thomas Carlyle writes about Sir Walter Scott)
- December 20 – Egypt Visited by the First Reporter (Herodotus discusses Egypt in The Histories)
- December 25 – The Christmas Story (from the gospel of Luke)
My only criticism of this book (and it is a minor one) is that some works and authors have more than one entry. Overall, though, this is an excellent book. I can see curious children as well as adults browsing through it for hours at a time. And you can’t beat the price.
The Story of Civilization and The Harvard Classics are wonderful works, but the above samplers are great substitutes if you, like most mortals, don’t have time to read the originals.