THE DAUNTING CURSE OF HISTORIANS WILL AND ARIEL DURANT

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January 1, 2016 · Posted in Commentary 

The Story of Civilization set

“Go ahead. I dare you to convince yourself that you will eventually get around to reading this behemoth set of history books!”

By Bob Vickrey

 As a newly married young man in my twenties, I belatedly discovered the pleasure of reading, and began my life-long love affair with books.

I had recently taken a job with a book publishing firm, which immediately led to a growing book collection in our small Houston apartment. The initial experience of receiving complimentary books from my publishing house was thrilling for both my wife and I, as we buried ourselves in our favorite new novel each evening.

We found ourselves living out the old adage, “So many books; so little time.” That first year, we were making great progress in reading just about everything that arrived at our front door. That is—until the day one of our friends dropped by with a house-warming gift, which would ultimately haunt our lives for many years in the future.

Our friend’s generous and well-meaning gift was a complete 11-volume set of Will and Ariel Durant’s landmark series, The Story of Civilization—all 38 and 1/2 pounds worth.

Each of the volumes was heavy enough to be used as a dependable door stop. And to be honest, I never liked the notion of taking on the daunting task of reading a book so thick it could be used as an anchor for an ocean cruise-liner.

My teachers in grade school had commented often about my short attention span in their classrooms. In fact, in later years, I was probably the only reader in America who complained about the length of Margaret Mitchell’s classic, Gone with the Wind. I questioned why it took Mitchell 1,000-plus pages to finally arrive at Rhett Butler’s last line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Most of us had reached that conclusion several hundred pages earlier.

In case you are unfamiliar with the Durant series of popular history books, when lined up on the bookshelf, they take up roughly the same linear space as a 1953 Oldsmobile 4-door sedan, and weigh approximately the same as, well—a 1953 Oldsmobile 4-door sedan. As an experienced owner, I recommend storing them on one of your lower shelves (both the books and/or the automobile,) but even then; I advocate keeping small children at a safe distance from their daunting peril.

Although initially intimidated by the gross tonnage of his gift, I rationalized that one day I would push on through each dense volume and educate myself about the world I lived in. Just imagine the accumulated guilt as each of us tip-toed by their intimidating presence for all those years. Decades later, those books remained pristine and unopened on my bookshelves despite the many house moves I’ve made in my lifetime.

Guilt has always been the driving force in cleaning out a home library. Nothing will help you clear the shelves faster than when a visitor in your home asks the innocent question, “Have you read all these?”

After my wife and I divorced, we didn’t as much disagree about how we would split the inventory of our book collection, but instead, argued vehemently about which one of us would be forced to keep the Durant collection. I lost the argument.

In the aftermath of the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, California, I read about the bookseller in Long Beach that had become trapped when the shelves in his store collapsed on top of him. I didn’t need to ask which books fell on him. I already imagined that he had likely been trapped by the weighty volumes of The Age of Voltaire and Rousseau and Revolution. He lay on the floor so long before someone finally rescued him that I’m guessing he now knows more about Voltaire than most college history professors. I think the bookseller had become what we refer to, as “a captive audience.”

Several years ago, my longtime friend Chris was visiting my home, and spotted the sagging bookshelves in my makeshift library. She blurted out, “Oh, my goodness, you have the Durant history series that I’ve always wanted to read!”

Almost before she could complete her sentence, I asked “Where is your car parked?” She looked at me quizzically until I explained my intention of giving her the whole set—with door-to-door delivery included. Before she discovered that my gift represented much more than kindness and generosity, I grabbed a box and began packing the books.

As Chris thanked me profusely and drove away from the house, I waited until her car was out of sight before running back up my driveway and doing my first-ever cartwheels.

It occurred to me that The Story of Civilization could well become the literary equivalent of the “holiday fruitcake”—which has famously been the most re-gifted present since Voltaire was wearing knickers.

As I became curious about how long the books had lasted on her shelves, I wondered what innocent bystander she had eventually foisted the books upon, while quietly whispering, “Okay, you’re it!”

 

Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald and a contributor to the Boryana Books website. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

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