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Following the Long Road ofCivilization

October 12, 1986|LINCOLN HAYNES

It's a mission accomplished. Twenty years after I began it, I have finished reading "The Story of Civilization" by Will and Ariel Durant.

It's a milestone, a rite of passage, a lifetime achievement. I've grown gray on the job, but I've done it. Eleven volumes and untold hours of companionship, propped up on the table (the books) or propped up on the sofa or bed (me)--and now it's over. I know how it turns out.

The boxful of books, packed and unpacked and repacked, have followed me (followed, hell--I carried them) in and out of a dozen houses and apartments, and a half-a-dozen jobs. I confess I did put them down now and then for other books--sometimes for months at a time--but I always picked them up again.

I got the original 10-volume set as a bargain-priced premium from the Book-of-the-Month Club--as did a million other people, no doubt. When that added 11th volume on "The Age of Napoleon" came along a few years ago, it cost about as much as the original 10 volumes altogether.

And I read every word, even the small print that the kindly old couple said we could skip. Every sentence was meaty but not heavy, seasoned with wit and felicitous phrasing.

Since Will Durant had written "The Story of Philosophy" first, he can be forgiven for bearing down on the philosophers a bit too much for my taste. But I plowed through it all, although I couldn't tell fact from Fichte a half-hour later. The rest--the commoners and kings, the arts and letters, the wars and occasional peace--was fascinating.

It took the Durants 50 years to write it, in and out of the Hollywood branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The library burned down after they finished, but there couldn't have been much left that they hadn't absorbed and distilled into these books.

"The Story of Civilization" would seem a pretentious title, but the Durants made it stick. If anything much happened that isn't there between the dawn of civilization and 1840, I'm not sure I've got time to hear about it.

Some historians may sneer at these red-bound, colorfully jacketed volumes as pop culture, not first-person research. Actually the authors spent years roaming and combing the world for personal perspective to back up those other years in the library, but they made no claim to original scholarship. The bibliography and notes in the back of every volume tell the depth of their research, and their insights shine through every page.

I'd call it a great work. Great work on their part to have written it--and pretty good work on my part to have read it.

It will stay on my shelf as an often-used reference, of course. But it's so good that I ought to read through it again, for the next 20 years, and pick up the nuances I missed.

I just may do that--after a few years' breather.

Haynes lives in Rancho Palos Verdes.

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