It seems logical to post first on the book I have read last, and it is Ferguson’s most recent work that lies resting beside the chair today. Niall Ferguson’s previous publications, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, and Empire: How Britain made the Modern World (amongst others) have placed him at the very pinnacle of contemporary historical analysis, particularly in the field of the classic historical survey. In this 402-page analysis of Western society, Ferguson continues to present a “big” history: an analysis full of imagination and sweep, yet lacking in substance, structure, or nuance.
Unsurprisingly, the argument of the book is evident in the subtitle (The West and the Rest), as it was in Empire and Colossus.The six chapter headings, Competition, Science, Property, Medicine, Consumption, and Work signify the crucial factors or “killer apps” that determined the divergent courses that the West and East have taken. In fact, if you exclude the introduction, the core of the book has been reached already: the rest is extremely well- written narrative, with striking cross-references and intercultural connections. Ferguson is extra-ordinarily quotable and engaging; he has a capacity to place the reader comfortably within the early modern world, be it the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul or the Machu Picchu in the Andes, his attention to detail is masterful. “Civilisation” focuses on the grubby world of money and power, pop culture and exploitation as much as the beauty of art or the romance of the aristocratic world. This is a no-holds-barred view of our world and where we came from.
Perhaps it is nostalgic, or even churlish, to say that the narrative sweep did not carry me away the way Braudel or Kenneth Clark ( who wrote similarly titled books) managed to when I was younger. Clark also wrote in conjunction with a television series, but it did not seem to affect the majesty and gravitas of his prose. Braudel- I’m not sure I’ll ever fully unlock the density of his writing, but I keep going back, and that tells a story in itself. Ferguson himself discusses these notions of civilisation in his introduction titled ” Rasselas Question.” It is in the preface and this section that you can perceive the ideological underpinnings of all Ferguson’s work; the schoolboy-like fascination with empire and its trappings, the need to answer the biggest of questions, and the balance between entertainment and information.
However, I feel that his flamboyant narrative style is something to be applauded, not undermined. It is true that his argument appears flighty — he is so much sounder on matters financial — but he does raise questions that tantalise the reader: he is irritating by times, but fundamentally engrossing. If, like me, you find the eventual conclusions disturbing, I’m sure you will find the journey interesting!
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