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Civilizations [Paperback]

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

12 Oct 2001
A close examination of the world's societies, from the maritime civilizations of the Polynesians to the Dawada people of the Sahara. Rather than looking to the familiar spots of Rome and Paris, Fernadez-Armesto takes us to unfamiliar territories to redifine our understanding of what it is to be civilized. Filled with anecdotal historical tales, shrewd insights and engaging arguments, this book concludes that societies can be judged on how civilized they are by investigating their interaction with their own environment.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Pan Books; New edition edition (12 Oct 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330487981
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330487986
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 12.9 x 4.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 854,853 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

It is, perhaps, in the end, too long. When the discussion turns to the recent past and a speculative future, its course has been run. However, for the subject it is comparatively terse (Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History ran to 12 toe-stubbing volumes), and the preceding 500 pages have blown by with the heady gusto of a prevailing wind, leaving the dedicated reader short of breath. Felipe Fern´ndez-Armesto is provocative, naughty, and deeply intelligent. He enjoys language in a way few modern novelists do, let alone historians, and his panoramic sweep of the world's civilizations is a proud and preening gesture, through which he rejects, as Norbert Elias did, civilization as a self-referential western concept, and embraces a multi-civilizational world, free of a linear interpretation of time. His aim is to return humankind to its "natural" context, from which for much of the previous few centuries he has, at least in western culture, expended considerable energy extricating itself. Civilizations, resolutely in the plural, are wrought, he contends, through a systematic refashioning of nature, with occasional conditional deferments. Whether through mutual contact or exclusivity, on the frozen tundra, desert sandscapes, highlands, lowlands, grasslands or fertile alluvial plains, and with timber, mud, stone or metal, human beings have consistently come together and shaped their communities accordingly, from the Phoenicians, Aztecs and Romans to the (now-extinct) bird-eating population of the Hebridean island of Hirta. It's all about food, of course, as the Greek empire's growth from the humble olive tree illustrates, but also wind and oceans, migration and colonialism, and while he speculates that the future might lie with a Pacific culture succeeding its Atlantic equivalent, both are still fledglings compared to the Indian Ocean's role in shaping history. The author of Millennium, Fern´ndez-Armesto enlivens his voluble anthropology with empirical tales of, and from, countless travellers, while almost nonchalantly lacing his whirlwind polemic with exquisite literary reference as his appraising lens zooms in and out like a hovering hawk. He calls it an "experimental work", and "written in something like a frenzy". That may be, but it's also daring, richly allusive, and maddeningly thrilling. --David Vincent --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Fernandez-Armesto is a superb storyteller, with a barrel-full of anecdotes and a language as finely textured as any novelist's." Independent on Sunday * "This is a contentious, provocative work, full of utterly original and sometimes perverse perspectives." - Timothy Mo, The Independent * "He accosts you, proposes an interesting subject, and then extends it at enormous length... This is all good fun, and highly readable." - Richard Gott, Literary Review * "Witty...sharply original." Neal Ascherson, The Observer

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Refreshingly Overwhelming. 1 Dec 2003
Around the world and through the ages, "Civilizations" takes the reader on a journey of discovery. Exotic lands, inhospitable climates and tantalising glimpses of forgotten cultures are all here.
The author has taken the approach of classifying civilisations not by their technological prowess or social structure, but by the geography in which they sustain themselves. Thus, chapters cover icy wastes, grassland, jungle, desert, etc,.
I was tempted to read this book by the promise of historical anecdotes and a wider coverage of human civilisation than most authors offer. Although Egypt, Greece and China have their place in this book, the reader is also allowed to stay for a while among the Mongol horde, voyage with the pioneering navigators of Polynesia and shiver in the mountains of Tibet.
Emphasis is placed on tradelinks and resources, but the author is quite happy to allow the figures of history to emerge from the landscape and make their presence known. There are quotes and extracts, as well as observations about the reasons for these expressions.
The prose is quite dry in places, yet in others it is as if you have the whole scene made real in front of you. When I read of the horrendous conditions of Frederik Hendrik Island, and the curious way in which its inhabitants survived there, I could feel my skin crawl and my boots fill with ooze, even as I sat on the bus into work.
Considering the great number of pages and the detail on each of them, I decided even before opening the book that it would be best read by selecting the most enigmatic culture and working my way down to the most familiar. I dip in, read some fascinating passage or enthralling chapter, and wait another day to read the next.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning! 15 Oct 2000
By A Customer
This is such an amazingly readable book. It looks dauntingly long, but once you're into it you're hooked. I read it over a weekend. Fernandez-Armesto can write like a novelist, but also is a complete polymath in his approach. It's so much more than straight linear history. It's exciting, mind-opening stuff. It's so unusual to finish a book feeling genuinely excited by the information and ideas contained within it. I can't recommend it too highly.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A deception 4 April 2013
By Troy
The book's thesis is that a civilization can be judged by the way it adapts and interacts with the environment. It starts in a promising way, but though he is very good with the anecdotal part of history, the book lacks the ability to link this evidence to his theory in a coherent way. The book leaves you wanting more analysis.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable and well written BUT 19 Mar 2003
By Cyph
"Civilizations is a radical cultural history of mankinds fragile relationship with nature (...) Felipe Fernandez-Armesto closely examines the world's societies, from the maritime civilizations of the Polynesians to the Dawada people of Sahara. (...) The book concludes that societies CAN be judged on how civilized they are, and this decision can only be made by investigating their interaction with their own envirnoment. This conclusion is illuminated by wonderfully anecdotal historical insights and brilliant analysis."
As everyone knows, back cover blurb should not be taken too seriously. Even so, I would like to make some comments on the quotations above.
Fernandez-Armesto examines quite a few ancient and more recent civilizations, and he certainly does so by providing "wonderfully anecdotal insights". In fact, this is probably what I liked the most about the book. F-A is a splendid writer, among other things showing a talent for producing stunning one-liners like "Culturally, Las Vegas has never really ceased to be a desert", making most of the book both readable and enjoyable.
As for "brilliant analysis", I'm not so sure. Most of the discussion concerning what civilizations are and how you can judge them is concentrated to the beginning, and no clear "conclusion" is reached either. As it is now, you feel like you (or perhaps the author) lose the thread a couple of times before you've read all the 566 pages. (The author admits that his work is "experimental" though, so I guess it can be excused.)
The lack of focus was partly explained when I started reading "Truth" by the same author some time after finishing this book. For some reason, parts of "Truth" struck me as familiar, though I had never read it.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Information overload 6 Jun 2009
A dazzling amount of information, but without the structure and analytical undercurrent that make this kind of books memorable. The author overloads our short-term memory with "factoids", most of which I found myself unable to recall only a few pages later. What did I learn or understand about civilization from this book ? Well, that it is all very complex, and that this author has done his homework in researching and collecting data. However, in our age of online encyclopedia, this is not what I expect from a thick book about history.
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