The first volume of Will Durant's Pulitzer Prize-winning series, Our Oriental Heritage: The Story of Civilization, Volume I chronicles the early history of Egypt, the Middle East, and Asia. In this masterful work, readers will encounter:
Sumeria, birthplace of the first cities and written laws
the Egyptians, who perfected monumental architecture, medicine, and mummification more than 3,500 years ago
the Babylonians, who developed astronomy and physics, and planted the seeds of Western mythology
the Judeans, who preserved their culture forever in the immortal books of the Old Testament
the Persians, who ruled the largest empire in recorded history before Rome
Indian philosophy, Chinese philosophers, and Japanese Samurais
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To fully appreciate Durant's encyclopedic work on the story of our our world, several things need to be understood.
Firstly, his approach to history is synthetic, as opposed to analytic - he doesn't look at one aspect or one period of human history, but rather he sets out to describe the entire experience of mankind from the Neolithic age to Napoleonic over the course of 11 volumes totalling around 9800 pages. That is a huge endeavour, especially considering that he wasn't writing a reference text, but a book that you could in theory pick up and read from cover to cover. Durant appreciated the challenge of his task and in the foreword to this, the first volume, he apologies in advance for the invariable omissions or mistakes.
Secondly, if you decide to read the entire series, you will, by virtue of what this work attempts to do, encounter whole cultures and/or time periods of which you knew little, if anything at all, and it can feel very discouraging and bewildering to listen to 6 hours on the ancient Chinese empire if your knowledge of China begins with Mao.
Thirdly, this volume was written in 1935 (it took Durant his whole life to finish the series together with his wife, and he died before he could write the volume on the 20th century), so both our knowledge of the ancient world and of our immediate history has obviously moved on since. It is particularly obvious in the section on Japan where Durant discusses her imperialistic ambitions as a possible catalyst for war with the USA.
Having said all that, the work is a great text as a standalone book, and indispensable if you want to read the entire series. Durant gives a great overview of cultures and intertwining politics of the period that few people study in school nowadays - ancient Assyria, Babylon, Sumer and the Persian empire, for example. It is hard to appreciate the greatness of Greek victory at Marathon (discussed in Vol II of the series), without first reading in this book about what a formidable enemy the Persians were. The Carthaginian civilisation (discussed in Vol III) makes more sense if you know about the ancient Phoenicians that were their ancestors.
My view of history has always been eurocentric and I knew next to nothing about India, China and Japan before reading this book. I am still more inclined to read about Rome and Renaissance Europe, but I have already added some books on China to my wishlist, as due to Durant's overview, I am more comfortable with where China fits in with the rest of the world and the history I have studied so far.
As this is the first volume in his work, there are teething problems. His thoughts tend to meander sometimes and there are parts that I feel were given undue attention - there is an extensive section on various Hindu holy texts that would have been more appropriate for a specialised book, as opposed to the general history of mankind. Having said that, I appreciated his overview of Akhenaten's religious reforms in Egypt (1350s BC), as I didn't realise that someone made such a strong attempt at monotheism before the Jews.
If you persevere with the series, Durant's writing gets much more streamlined and succinct - I'm on Vol III at the moment, and it's wonderful!
The biggest issue with the book is the narration. If you look at all 11 volumes of the series on Audible, you will see that after this book, everything is narrated either by Stefan Rudnicki or Grover Gardner; there is a reason for that. Robin Field's narration is soporific and monotonous and that is especially apparent (painfully so) when Field gets to the more obscure parts of the texts. Maybe my issues with the section on Hinduism had less to do with the text itself and more to do with the fact that it sounded like Field was reading an eulogy for the most boring person in the world.
In spite of that, if you decided to read this as a standalone book, I say - persevere! I don't know of any other book that could take you from 10 000 BC to Ancient Greece in a more succinct or logical way.
If you want to read the whole series, I promise that it gets much better - the writing is more edited and structured and one of the narrators - Gardner - is also the guy whom Audible reviewers consider the quintessential Mark Twain narrator, so he is perfect for Durant's witty asides of which there are plenty.