by Peter Watson
May 5th, 2010

The experience of reading some books is like tripping through a meadow full of wildflowers, dancing from one bloom of knowledge to the next, sniffing each one's perfume, admiring its beauty, and moving on to another. This book was more like a death march.

It started off just great. The early chapters on the rise of humanity and its cognitive development are well handled. It is only after you have let down your guard and gotten sucked into this book that it turns on you. The flowers become more sparse, the foliage slowly thins, browns, and eventually disappears altogether. You find yourself trudging across a rock-strewn desolation, determined to keep going in the belief that this is only a temporary problem and the oasis is just over that next rise. But the ground only grows steeper and even more broken, until you reach the end of the book only by dint of iron determination.

I nevertheless recommend this book to most people; its virtues outshine its vices. But be prepared to ditch it partway through. Don't stick it out unless you truly are enjoying the material; it won't ever improve.

What exactly is wrong with this book? First, the author, while broadly educated, has overreached his base of knowledge; in some areas, it is obvious that he doesn't have a firm grip on his material. I noticed, for example, that his grasp of the contributions of Galileo and Newton was weak.

Second, his writing ain't nuthin' to write home about. It's decent, serviceable writing and it does the job, but it's dry and sometimes his sentences run too long. Sometimes I had to re-read some paragraphs a second time to hoist aboard the idea he was driving at. Some of his prose just left a bad taste in my mouth.

Third, he seems more intent on names than ideas, especially in the latter part of the book. Pages swarm with the names of every contributor to every idea that he addresses. I think he's trying to be fair to everybody, but I'd rather watch the movie than read the credits. Indeed, the message often gets lost in the credits.

I can suggest several other books that address something close to this book's content, and do so more felicitously. First is Will Durant's classic History of Civilization -- all twelve volumes. The series was begun in the 1930s and not completed until the 1960s, so it is a bit dated, but it's still worth reading. Durant is a far better writer than Watson -- certainly a far better writer than I -- and his grasp of the subject matter is magisterial. I would guess that, in researching this book, Mr. Watson read several books on each major topic. Whatever Mr. Watson read, Mr. Durant read a great deal more. The 30-year duration of the research process for Mr. Durant suggests just how much effort he put into it.

Mr. Durant's books, of course, tackle far more than just ideas -- but ideas, I think, lie at the core of his history. You'll certainly get a lot to think about in Durant's books.

The second and third books I recommend are by Daniel Boorstin: The Creators and The Discoverers. The first is a history of art, the second a history of science. Mr. Boorstin is another delightful writer, and his erudition was fully acquired and well-digested well before he wrote these books.

Indeed, comparing Mr. Watson's book with these three alternatives, I can't see any good reason why anybody would want to read Mr. Watson's book.