Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Rare is the day that I'll make it three-quarters of the way through a book and then stop, but I simply can't finish the grating "CIVILIZATION: THE WEST AND THE REST" by Niall Ferguson. The book, which successfully argues by the time five pages are consumed that the Eurocentric "West" is responsible for an overwhelming share of the advances that led to a state we call "civilization", promises much and delivers on it too soon before spinning into tangents. Essentially the Scottish historian makes the valid claim that it was the West that led the way to centuries of improving living standards by being the geographic pioneer and disseminator of six key areas:

1) Competition, both among and within the European states;
2) Science, beginning with the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries;
3) The rule of law and representative government, based on the rights of private property and representation in elected legislatures;
4) Modern medicine;
5) The consumer society that resulted from the Industrial Revolution; and
6) The work ethic

These areas are so wholly important to the functioning of the civilized world as we know it today - and ethnocentrism aside, all arose or were mastered in the West. Asia and the Middle East, for all its ages of glory, have not taken a leading role in these areas for centuries now.

It's an interesting and really, not-all-that-provocative, self-evident premise. Niall Ferguson than elaborates on each area, chapter and verse, with history lessons, anecdotes and grand sweeping themes that tie them all together. Sounds like a good, informative read, right? That's what I thought. The problem is how easily Ferguson gets bogged down in his own minor arguments, and how wildly his stories and anecdotes veer from his core theme. It's almost as if he verbally dictated it into a speech-to-text engine after a few well-mixed drinks.

The mind of the reader therefore wanders easily. Wait, did I need to check my email? Isn't there laundry in the dryer? Oh right, modern medicine has a lot to do with the goodness of British imperialism and the wrongness of German imperialism. Wait, what? Ferguson writes like a smugly self-satisfied expert, and that's all right if you're constantly driving the point home while illuminating it with great writing. That's only happening in parts here. I decided to cut my losses during the "consumer society" chapter because, well, I figured I got the cut of his jib. That was another three or so hours I was able to spend on laundry and email. Regrettably, this one's not recommended for discerning Hedonist Jive readers.