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Jacques Barzun's From Dawn To Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life is quite an undertaking. As the title suggests, this tome describes the development of high culture - art, music, literature, philosophy, architecture, and society - in Europe and North America during the last five centuries. It's a massive (800 page) and dense book, written by someone who spent a lifetime studying European culture. Barzun tries to organize the creations of hundreds of people into a coherent big picture.

It's good to get some exposure to all these great works, since I'd never encounter most of them on my own. However, after reading passages analyzing unfamiliar art, music, etc., it was often unclear whether I actually learned anything. Barzun focuses more on providing an overreaching perspective of cultural developments, instead of teaching Western Civ. 101. His writing presumes some familiarity with western cultural history, and he spends as much time judging and relating the various intellectual and artistic masters as he does explaining what they did.

Also, when Barzun discussed subjects that I actually know something about, his opinions were often rather odd and inconsistent with my way of looking for things. For example, he claimed that the American War of Independence was not a revolution. More strangely, he described political correctness as a modern-day manifestation of the Spanish Inquisition. The final chapter presents an unusual perspective of the modern world, viewing it as a demotic (of the people) welfare state largely devoid of real culture. It can be worthwhile to hear the vantage point of an intelligent, articulate, well-educated author who disagrees with you on many topics. Still, I wonder how much I can trust his views on subjects that I have no familiarity with.

Dawn to Decadence is impressive, since Barzun manages to bring together an enormous range of material into a cohesive work. However, if you're planning to dive into it, know that it's a challenging and slow read.

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