A call to republish William and Ariel Durant’s ‘The Story of Civilization’

The works of 20th-century Pulitzer historians Will and Ariel Durant offer much that more recently published books lack. The couple worked as co-authors on works which eschewed conventions of historiography writing; this earned them scorn from other professional historians.

Rather than specializing in niche topics, the Durants aimed to tell the whole of human history without taking shortcuts. In their massive, 11-volume anthology, “The Story of Civilization,” the couple wrote about the politics, personalities and endeavors of each one of the key actors, named and unnamed, who shaped what they believed to be the most influential of all the world’s stages of development.

Their series begins with the book “Our Oriental Heritage.” While this wording is not the preferred term for Asian origin anymore, the Durants shed light on Asian contributions to world civilizations, a topic that is still under-acknowledged today. Other books of theirs include “The Age of Religion,” “The Age of Caesar and Christ,” “The Age of Reason Begins,” “The Age of Voltaire” and “Rousseau and Revolution.”

In terms of political outlook, the books are not spearheads for any ideological interpretations. The fact that the Durants manage to write history so clearly, without any repetitive analysis or overgeneralizations, is invigorating and refreshing in a time when other bestselling books in humanities are rich in analysis, but lack the transportive narration that the Durants bring.

Reading their book, “The Age of Napoleon,” I do not feel like I am brought back to the time of the French revolution as a surveyor or detective looking for clues to fit a theory, as is often the case when reading history. Instead, I just feel fully there, with all the hindsight and clarity of knowing what transpired from the microcosms of interactions between revolutionaries, and the physical conditions that drove people to revolt, staking their hopes on radical departures from hundreds of years living under feudalism to the age of industrial capitalism.

Though the Durants cover a wider span of history than almost any other authors, which some critics allege makes them overly generalist, their work is not a grand arc of history generalization, but a complex, multifaceted story with a central theme: History is a result of how ideas take root and shape reality.

While social science writings of today often guide the reader to discover why things happened, the Durants’ approach can be described as illuminating where the tides of change in history bubbled up. They don’t reinterpret or juxtapose between periods, but allow history to speak for itself in the rawest way possible. When I read “The Age of Napoleon,” I felt that the complexity of how all the factions that made up the revolution fought each other for control, and later opposed what the revolution became, added to the ease of understanding the revolution rather than obscuring it. This is the powerful reality of this work.

It seems ironic that modern communication technology makes possible the transfer of low-quality information, but that a masterpiece by a historian tag-team, one of whom is also a philosopher, is lost to the no-longer-in-print relegation. “The Age of Napoleon” was first gifted to me by a friend of French Huguenot heritage, who told me that it was a very special book to him. After I questioned him repeatedly to make sure that he was certain about giving it away to me, I relented and began reading.

After researching the authors, I discovered the Will and Ariel Durant Foundation, which advocates for the Durants’ books to be republished. According to the foundation’s website, will-durant.com, the publishing rights of the books in the series are owned by Simon and Schuster.

While other books of Will Durant are in print – notably, “The Lessons of History,” which can be found or ordered at the Greensboro Barnes and Noble in Friendly Center – the massive two-million-word series he wrote with his wife is limited to those fortunate enough to find a copy in a rare book store or wealthy enough to buy from online sellers at a hefty price.

The Durants believed in popularizing history for anyone, not just academics to understand. Their books should be republished to make their work available to anyone as curious about how humankind created civilization, and how civilization changed humankind, as I am.