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The Scholarly Reach of Popular History

Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization

The full eleven volumes of The Story of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant’s popular history of (mostly) the “Western world,” take up exactly 22” of shelf space, fitting perfectly on the top shelf of one of a couple of unfinished pine bookcases I recently bought to accommodate the spillover from my stubbornly expanding home library. Now those shelves are ranged against a wall of my bedroom (bookshelf creep in my house is real, y’all). There stand the Durants, serene and complete, as I make my way through their pages.

In her indispensable book The Making of Middlebrow Culture, Joan Shelley Rubin situates the career of Will Durant as illustrative of the craze for the “outline” approach to knowledge, exemplified by H.G. Wells’s wildly popular Outline of History. Though Rubin focuses on Will Durant’s solo production, The Story of Philosophy, her observations about the success of that work generally hold true for The Story of Civilization. These single-volume or multi-volume combinations of command and concision — purportedly comprehensive knowledge, systematically arranged and neatly packaged — provided assurance to their readers that everything they needed to make sense of the world (or some particular aspect of it) could be found within the covers of these books. To have them was to have at one’s fingertips a whole field of understanding — a comforting suggestion of general command in an era of increasing intellectual specialization.

For many, simply possessing these books was assurance enough. In the same way that encyclopedias served as a marker of middle class respectability and by their very presence signified an educated household — a function wonderfully discussed in The Hidden Injuries of Class by Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett — the full set of the Durants, ranged neatly on a shelf, testified to the learning and sophistication of the household in which they were proudly displayed.

Much like encyclopedias (or a full set of the Church Fathers, or Eliot’s “five foot shelf of books,” or Britannica’s “Great Books” series), the Durants were displayed side by side more often than they were read cover to cover. This was tangibly demonstrated to me as I made my way through the first volume of the set I purchased. Due to a printing error, an entire quire of pages was missing from the volume. The paging jumped from page 30 to page 63, proceeded from there up to page 92, and then repeated pages 63-92 before moving on in sequence for the rest of the volume. I wrote to the booksellers right away and let them know I’d received a misprinted volume as part of the set, and they very kindly posted a replacement volume right away.

That’s the tricky thing with “full sets” of the Durants — there were so many complete sets sold new, so many volumes in circulation, that a used “set” might comprise books from several different printings. Indeed, my faulty first volume came from the twenty-fifth printing, while my fair second volume came from the twenty-second printing of the work. The very tattered dustjackets for my set also come from a range of different printings, and they don’t always match the book they are protecting, suggesting that used booksellers probably access to a fairly steady supply of “replacement parts” for full sets of Will and Ariel Durant.

While I was waiting for my replacement volume to arrive, I decided to proceed through the volume I already had. Indeed, I took it with me as a beach read on a vacation to Tulum earlier this summer, leaving its tattered dustjacket behind. As I made my way through the volume, I came upon a few pages that had not been completely cut along the top edge. I found myself wondering if the original purchaser of book had ever read far enough into it to notice its printing gap, never mind its binding flaws. Perhaps the mere possession of the work, spine unbroken and pages unread, met the purposes of its first owner. And how many times had it been sold and resold since then as part of a set, without its purchaser ever discovering that it wasn’t complete? It’s impossible to say. This particular volume from the twenty-fifth printing can be no more than 53 years old. (I say that because the twenty-second printing shows a copyright date of 1966.)

Anyhow, after bumping around the world for some fifty-odd years, give or take, this volume came into my possession and I did what no one had apparently done before: I read it.

I’m certainly not the only historian to have read one or more volumes of the Durants. In fact, when I posted on Twitter back in the spring that I was reading through these volumes, I heard from a few scholars who mentioned that they grew up in households with a set of these books and that reading these books at some point in their formative years had a significant influence on their eventual decision to study history or adjacent fields.

The reception history of The Story of Civilization is of interest to me. I can’t say how much of it will make its way into my book on the Stanford “Western Civ” debates. But this massively popular and widely circulated set of books purporting to offer a comprehensive history of the (Western) world probably had a significant influence on popular ideas about what “civilization” means or can mean, and — judging from the responses I got on Twitter — may very well have had a formative influence on generations of historians. From a quick search of JSTOR, I can tell you that only a couple of the volumes were ever reviewed in scholarly journals, and in almost all of the reviews the Durants’ work was panned. But that doesn’t mean the work was not influential, even among scholars, at least in their formative years.

Whether or not I write much about the Durants in my book, I’d like to write a follow-up piece elsewhere about the Durants’ place in the libraries and memories and careers of scholars and public intellectuals. So, as a way into this subject, I ask:

Did you grow up in a household with a set of the Durants? Did you browse through a volume or two? Did you read the whole set? Did you acquire them in adulthood and enjoy them later in life? Have they ever been on your “to read” list? How did they get there? Are they on your “to read” list now?

I would love to hear from readers here in the comments. Or you can @ me on Twitter at @LDBurnett. Even if these volumes were only ever decorative in your experience, I’d love to know what that decoration signified to you and your family.

If 22” of shelf space in your childhood home was set aside for Will and Ariel Durant, what did that mean for you? What books were ranged above them or below them or alongside them? What place did they hold in your imagination? What place do they hold in your memory?

L.D. Burnett, a historian of American thought and culture, is the editor of the U.S. Intellectual History blog. Her book, Canon Wars: The Stanford “Western Culture” Debates and the Neoliberal Assault on American Higher Education is under contract with UNC Press. This article was originally published by the U.S. Intellectual History blog.

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L.D. Burnett

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