The best book I have ever read in this year and for the last 20 years (i.e. my whole life up to this point).
This is a masterpiece. It has done so much to me, intellectually, artistically, and emotionally, that it deserves such a title.
From Dawn to Decadence covers a 500 year period from roughly the Renaissance - the so-called reborn of the Western Civilization - until the end of 20th century, which Barzun considers as its very Decadence. I have never read a history book in which everything weaves together so fluidly. Barzun hardly mentions a particular year and therefore frees readers from the urge to memorize numbers and names and events. He instead, just as I wish, rather draws out maps and "generalities" from the periods, adding here and there some spotlights for illustrations, highlights, or exceptions. Yes, even though the book is a history of Western cultures and ideas and therefore the lack of specific years should be expected, I find the absence nevertheless quite something. Especially the 15-17th centuries are so connected that I am scarcely aware of the flow of time.
Barzun displays such an encyclopedic knowledge that I cannot help but drop my jaw. 800 pages of the book are filled with so much information that I guarantee that it can never be reread enough. THe book, furthermore, is not supposed to be a stand-alone. It is, again, like a map that readers, if interested (and they should be), will seek out for more information based on such and such keywords and such and such works by such and such people. Sometimes the information is just way beyond me that I simply have to surrender and keep for future reference. Right. I shiver at the sheer size of this body of knowledge that this historian masters. He knows everything, with depth. While I can somewhat handle his discussion on visual art, and struggle a bit with the one on literature, when he switches to classical music with such a zeal and passion, I am simply at a loss. He is my dream role model.
Not only the book is comprehensive in knowledge, it is also a beautiful literary work. Barzun is damn witty. In fact, he is so witty and he features in his book so many witty figures, that after reading the book, I am convinced that wittiness is the best and most attractive quality can ever be found in man. How, how can such a man exist? No, the better question is, how could these men exist?
Reading the book also makes me think history is the greatest field ever. Well, yeah, Barzun discusses a number of changes and problems in the field, but that does not matter, because what I feel is that historian, at least one like Barzun, is able to stand out of life and time, critically, objectively, and yet not detached. He still forms his own interpretations and states his own tastes and emotions (very vividly in the last part of the book on the last century - 20th), but I don't feel being imposed upon at all.
Well, I do get a little bit depressed because of his solemn and bitter writings at the end of the book. Sure, I agree with many of his points, especially on the Modern Art, or politics and economics. Still, many other things I find acceptable in this current period are quite condemned by Barzun. That makes me feel so curious. Why? Is that because Barzun is a historian so he is much more aware of the "problems," while I am a very product of the new culture? or is it because he was born 2 generations before me and therefore it is simply the difference in taste? Yes, as he says at the beginning of the book, each history is an interpretation and only by reading multiple interpretations can one get closer to the truth. I guess it will take a life time of reading and living to reach a conclusion about this Modern period. Perhaps this is a decadence, but I hope I will live long enough to see it reborn. Another Renaissance?