Having so often seen this book mentioned in other texts, I was interested to find out what all the excitement was about. Having finished it, I could only wish I’d read it fifty years ago, when the ideas contained within it must have sounded much more revelatory than they do today. To be fair, it’s unusually articulate for a scientific text, and the central hypothesis is still robust and thought-provoking. But it's not what you'd call an entertaining read. Kuhn does illuminate some of his ideas with historical examples, but nothing like as colourfully as a good popular-science writer would today. Consequently, much of the book is, in all honesty, pretty turgid. In between the passages where the pace picks up, there are long stretches of rather hard going. It even takes Kuhn several chapters just to establish his premises before embarking on the main argument. By then, I didn’t really feel that bothered any more. Still, it’s intelligently read and well produced, it’s pretty short (4.5 hours on x2), and at least you can say afterwards that you’ve read it, and not just read about it.
What I most liked about this ambitious study is that, unusually, it does not present a timeline of a single location but moves from place to place as time goes on – so that, for example, you can learn what was in the news in China, India or Egypt just when Troy was falling. You do however need to be aware that Susan Wise Bauer is not a historian, but a teacher of American literature. Her introduction announces slightly ominously that she is not interested in ‘scientific’ history, and prefers a story-telling approach. Consequently, the early chapters, made up of the outlandish mythologies of dead cultures, had me worried. But there was no need to be. Though she largely ignores the latest archaeological, genetic and linguistic data that make some of her old textual sources look quite misleading, you still get an engrossing and flowing account of events, as reported by the ancients themselves, that gives you a feel for the big picture. And there’s nothing to stop you delving deeper into ‘scientific’ details if the fancy takes you.
Narrator John Lee does a good, solid job with this huge project, lending the story a suitably grand air and attempting all those exotic ancient names colourfully. Unfortunately, I felt he didn’t quite pass the acid test of a great narrator, which is to add colour to the narrative without distracting. You needn’t be a pedant to wonder why he pronounces Latin the way they do in the Vatican instead of the way the Romans did. And, although he has an appropriately RP accent for the project, his articulation of every syllable is strangely precise, as though he were desperate to get top marks in an elocution exam. Yet some of his vowels remain incongruously northern English; and, when he lobs in a bunch of random US pronunciations, as though educated North Americans will otherwise be bamboozled, you wonder whose side of the ocean he’s on. Maybe an American female might have captured Ms Bauer’s tone better?
Given the unwieldy length of its subject, Francis Wheen’s book is remarkably brief, and possibly not the most cost-effective use of an Audible credit. On the other hand, it does tell you all you probably need to know about Marx’s strangely influential tome. Wheen paints a picture of Marx as a chaotic, pretentious fibber who knocked together just enough material to please his editor, but never got around to completing a work that has nevertheless attained the touchstone quality of a religious text. He then undermines ‘Das Kapital’ in almost every particular: not in a polemic way, but simply by evoking the mind-boggling abstruseness of its economic argument (which even Harold Wilson never bothered to read) and then relating the manifold ways in which subsequent history has proved this ‘scientific’ text wrong in virtually all of its predictions. It’s therefore perplexing that Wheen ends by suggesting, on the strength of nothing but the same romantic impulse that spawned ‘Das Kapital’ itself, that Marx may have his day yet.
Since Wheen has a pleasing and suitably sardonic speaking voice, it’s a shame that he didn’t relate the text himself. Simon Vance’s performance is all right as a substitute but, though he obviously boned up on how to pronounce German consonants and vowels, his efforts at German intonation often resemble calamitous car-crashes. You’d have thought that the narrator brief for an audio-book concerning a much-quoted German author and German text would somewhere include the words, “Must speak German”.
I'm an atheist, but I have a continuing interest in the history of the great religions, not least because of the impact that - rightly or, in my view, wrongly - they continue to have on the world. I downloaded this book having seen Diarmaid MacCulloch's BBC Television series on Christianity and also heard him talk on various radio programmes such as In Our Time.
The scale of the project, and in particular the brilliant notion of starting the history of Christianity a thousand years before Christ, is astonishing. Diarmaid MacCulloch wears his scholarship lightly, but never patronises the reader/listener, and the way in which different strands of the worldview are intertwined is absolutely fascinating. It's a big book and it takes a long time to get through, but it is well worth it. Highly recommended.