Paul Johnson writes in a unique style. Many say his style is quirky, but I think his way of writing history is really the best. My reading his book is like being taken to a month-long tour of the early nineteenth century, mostly to England and Europe, but also to other parts of the world - American, Australia, Latin America and Asia - by virtue of the English (mostly) influence. It was like waking up in the morning and reading the morning paper of the era, learning about the what were unfolding in politics, business, industry, literature, music, art, science, and even gossip as they happened.
In this 1000 page volume, Johnson tells how the modern society rapidly took shape in a relatively short period of time after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. It is an interesting and compelling thesis. The industrial revolution, which created a lot of "self-made" men, and the arrival of the white men to all continents with their modern morals and superior weapons, the emergence of science, the popularization of music, art, communication media and eventually politics, all interacted to bring about an era of politics of the masses, or democracy, in the West.
Johnson tells us that this was not just another period of progress. It was the birth of the modern society. After reading his book, I am inclined to agree. Many of the salient features of today's society first took shape then. From little ills like traffic jams and parking tickets, for example, which started with increasing number of horse carriages, to party politics fanned by the media, newly juiced up by the steam-powered printing press. As if he anticipated what would happen in September 2000, at the ending pages of the book, Johnson innocuously chronicled the invention of the Lucifer match, a godsend for housewives but which also spawned arson. Does that not sound like a foretaste of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction?
The Birth of the Modern is a very unique history book. It is well worth your time. It gives meaning to the author's famous quote: "The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false."
It is the best answer to anyone who might ask why we should study history.