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Lunch » Tags » Book » Reviews » From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life » User review

The Uses of History

  • Nov 23, 2006
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Given the wonderful reviews below, it would be vain to summarize the structure of this magnificient book. Instead, I'd like to tell you what I think `Dawn to Decadence' can do for you.

* First, and maybe best, you get to spend 802 pages worth of your reading time in the company of a man who has thought long and hard about who we are and has the grace and talent to share it. Jacques Barzun is very good company.

* You'll get to expand your knowledge of your ignorance. How wonderful to be prompted to look at the size of what you don't know! It's the first and in many ways, most luscious step in learning.

* You will lose your sense of what is `human nature' and begin to see a lot of what you thought was part of the human condition as really a piece of human construction. To take one example, the splendid essay on Montaigne reminds us that the very idea of an autonomous self had to be invented and that idea had to struggle against earlier, humoral theories of human nature.

* You will see (and perhaps never forget) a vision of the future in which the tedium of the technological, television era is rolled back by a return to earlier pasttimes and forms. Family poetry readings after dinner? Chamber music on the village green?

In spite of the title, this is a resoundingly optimistic work. It's not too much to say that it will leave you a changed person. I envy any one who gets to read it for the first time and I think I'll distract myself from that envy by reading it again now for the second time.

--Lynn Hoffman, author of THE NEW SHORT COURSE IN WINE and the forthcoming novel bang-BANG from Kunati Books. ISBN 9781601640005

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May 28, 2012
"Expand your knowledge of your ignorance"! That is a great expression. This was a fantastic book, and I agree that it is resoundingly optimistic.
More From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 t... reviews
review by . May 28, 2012
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 professorial style (for example, Barzun will …
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Lynn Hoffman ()
Ranked #892
I cook therefore I. .therefore I eat. No, maybe that's thereby I eat'.   Anyway, I love food, beer and wine: I like to write about them too,(The New Short Course in Wine is adapted from … more
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About this book


In the last half-millennium, as the noted cultural critic and historianJacques Barzunobserves, great revolutions have swept the Western world. Each has brought profound change--for instance, the remaking of the commercial and social worlds wrought by the rise of Protestantism and by the decline of hereditary monarchies. And each, Barzun hints, is too little studied or appreciated today, in a time he does not hesitate to label as decadent.

To leaf through Barzun's sweeping, densely detailed but lightly written survey of the last 500 years is to ride a whirlwind of world-changing events. Barzun ponders, for instance, the tumultuous political climate of Renaissance Italy, which yielded mayhem and chaos, but also the work of Michelangelo and Leonardo--and, he adds, the scientific foundations for today's consumer culture of boom boxes and rollerblades. He considers the 16th-century varieties of religious experimentation that arose in the wake of Martin Luther's 95 theses, some of which led to the repression of individual personality, others of which might easily have come from the "Me Decade." Along the way, he offers a miniature history of the detective novel, defends Surrealism from its detractors, and derides the rise of professional sports, packing in a wealth of learned and often barbed asides.

Never shy of controversy, Barzun writes from a generally conservative position; he insists on the importance of moral values, celebrates the historical contributions of Christopher ...

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ISBN-10: 0060175869
ISBN-13: 978-0060175863
Author: Jacques Barzun
Publisher: HarperCollins

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