A Study of History

Yesterday’s mail brought Volumes 2 and 3 of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. I now have the first 4 of the 12 volumes that make up the series. These books have not been easy to find. The original hardcover editions can go for hundreds of dollars. I was lucky to find paperback editions from 1962. I wasn’t sure what condition they’d be in when they arrived, but it turns out all four volumes are in good condition.

With the first four volumes in hand, I think it is safe for me to start reading them. This will be a slow process for several reasons. First, I usually read more than one book at a time, giving preference to whatever book I’m listening to on Audible. Only when I hit my target listening time each day do I feel okay with turning to whatever I happen to be reading in paper or e-book form. Given how much I depend on audiobooks these days, I don’t always have much time left for anything else.

Second, these are dense books, with small print. On some pages, the footnotes (even smaller print) take up most of the page. Then, too, as I’ve discovered by reading the first few pages last night, Toynbee’s style of writing is very different (and somewhat more convoluted) than Will Durant’s. All of this forces me to slow down as I read in order to take in as much as I can along the way.

The series of books is laid out as follows (bold items are ones that I have in my possession at the time of this writing):

  1. Introduction – The Geneses of Civilizations, Part One (1934)
  2. The Geneses of Civilizations, Part 2 (1934)
  3. The Growths of Civilizations (1934)
  4. The Breakdown of Civilizations (1939)
  5. The Disintegrations of Civilizations, Part One (1939)
  6. The Disintegrations of Civilizations, Part Two (1939)
  7. (A) Universal States; (B) Universal Churches (two separate volumes in the paperback edition) (1954)
  8. Heroic Ages – Contacts Between Civilizations in Space (Encounters Between Contemporaries) (1954)
  9. Contacts Between Civilizations in Time (Renaissances) – Law and Freedom in History – The Prospects of Western Civilization (1954)
  10. The Inspirations of History (1954)
  11. Historical Atlas and Gazetteer (1959)
  12. Reconsiderations (1961)

I figure that by the time I finish reading Volume 4, enough time will have passed to allow me to located relatively affordable paperback editions of the remaining eight books.

Why read a history text published so long ago? One might as well ask why read Gibbon. I can think of three reasons that make sense to me.

  1. I’m fascinated by lifelong efforts like this. I read and enjoyed Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time (6 volumes that spanned more than 30 years). I’ve made it halfway through Will Durant’s Story of Civilizations, 11 volumes of which span 40 years of effort. Toynbee’s effort similarly spans 40 years.
  2. I’m interested in the subject. History fascinates me. That wasn’t always the case. I remember in grade school thinking that history was pretty dull. That was because it was nothing more than names and dates. But in 5th grade, we studied early American history (Revolutionary War, etc.) and, living as I did in New England at the time, it came to life. The places were places I knew, and had been to. My perspective on history changed after that. I’ve also found, that very little that happens in the world today is new. There is often precedent for it in the past.
  3. I’m fascinated by the evolution of discovery. “Facts” change over time. This is true in science as our knowledge of a subject increases; it is also true in history as new information is uncovered, and new evidence (archeological, and otherwise) is located. In Malone’s biography of Jefferson, Malone was fairly adamant that Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemmings was little more than rumor, something that DNA and modern science proved him wrong about. Reading older works of history allows me to see this evolution in action.

Indeed, Toynbee makes this point explicit in his preface to the paperback edition of Volume 1:

The size of the work’s field has determined its length, and its unavoidable length has made it take a long time to write. The general plan of the work was put on paper in 1921; Volume 12 was published in 1961. The intervening forty years brought with them a number of changes, and these have left their mark on the text as this has been gradually written and published…

…The additions to past history that were made during the eventful forty years 1921-1961 are appreciable in their quantity, and significant in their effect, even when viewed in the perspective of the preceding 5000 years of human history. They make the retrospective picture of these last 5000 years look perceptibly different, as seen from the standpoint of the year 1961, from the picture as seen from the standpoint of 1921

A Study of History, Vol 1, p. viii

It is this last point that fascinates me particularly for two reasons: first, because it provides insight into how we learn about the pas; and second, because implicit within it is the knowledge that in the future, we may understand things differently with increasing knowledge and insight.

In the meantime, you can expect periodic updates on my progress through these volumes, slow though it may be.


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