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on 1 December 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.
Suffice to say, I haven't finished the book yet, but this is definitely a companion for life - If only for the sheer variety of cultures on offer. I didn't fully appreciate until now how diverse civilisation could be. Not just that such and such a thing might be possible, but that it had already happened and happened sucessfully - Despite close-minded historians and paranoid nations belittling the achievements of lands they could claim no cultural connection with. For this, we need look no further than Great Zimbabwe or the nation of Meroe to see that mighty civilisations have been denied their rightful place in world history simply because archaeologists of the West refused to acknowledge that black Africans might build empires to rival those of Egypt or Rome.
This book can open up a whole new world. What's surprising is that it's the world we already live in.
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on 15 October 2000
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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on 4 April 2013
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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on 27 March 2002
For those of you, who, like me, have delved into the canon of works on civilisations, this may be a welcome breeze of fresh air. F-A gives a refreshed definition on the difficult and timeless question of what actually is civilisation. A whirlwind account, in the prose of a professional poet, through various states, past and present, all with respect to their environment. Those who have read Jared Diamond's excellent 'Guns, Germs and Steel' will find this a useful corollory. This book encapsulates the sheer diversity and magesty of the world's people, without the stagnation caused by categorization as so often found in these books.
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on 3 July 2016
It took me a long time to read this book and I undertake this review with less enthusiasm than that for any other review I’ve written. It’s not that I think this book is particularly bad, I don’t. Rather I find it hard to think of anything worthwhile to say and I fear that my review may bear a resemblance to its subject in that the whole may be less than the sum of its parts.
The author tells us, “I have written it in something like a frenzy, anxious to get down what I wanted to say before I forgot it. No mature deliberation has formed it.”
It shows.
It is said – though I don’t think anyone has traced the source – that when asked about modern/Western (depending on who’s telling the story) civilization that Gandhi replied that it would be a good idea.
This book was a good idea but not one properly realized.
My first difficulty is with the book’s title and a problem with word usage in the English language. The noun “civilization” and the adjective “civilized” may have the same root but members of a given civilization may deal with less powerful, “uncivilized” people in a very uncivilized manner e.g. the treatment of the Tasmanian Aborigines.
In Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s own description of this work, "Unlike previous attempts to write the comparative history of civilizations, it is arranged environment by environment, rather than period by period or society by society." Each of the groups he examines is labelled a civilization. Now as Alfred Crosby has written, “Civilization is a saltpeter of a word, often triggering explosive arguments. I use it not in moral comment, but simply in reference to peoples settled in cities, villages, hamlets, and to the kind of political, economic, social, and military structures associated with such populations.”
For me for a culture to qualify as a civilization it has to have cities, an advanced level of social hierarchy and organization (including organized religion), and – possibly except from the Incas – a writing system.
Fernandez-Armesto writes, “I propose to define it as a type of relationship: a relationship to the natural environment, recrafted, by the civilizing impulse, to meet human demands. By "a civilization" I mean a society in such a relationship.”
If I may quote from Through the Looking Glass,
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
I side with Alice.
As with the author’s work ‘Millennium’, the scholarship is impressive, the erudition vast. You or I may disagree with the author’s views but I for one would be hard pressed to catch him out in a factual error.
And he does make some interesting points, particularly on the importance of wind and sea current patterns and on the impact on the world of the cracking of the Atlantic patterns by Europeans to the extent that,
“Not only were virtually all maritime empires founded by Atlantic-side states; there was, effectively, no Atlantic-side state that did not have one. The only possible exceptions are Norway, Ireland, and Iceland; but these states did not achieve sovereignty themselves until the twentieth century and so missed the great ages of oceanic empire-building.”
The book contains many anecdotes only one of which I can remember. It relates to the brother of Mansa Musa, much beloved of authors of school history textbooks as they have a Sub-Saharan African they can write about. It was told by Ibn Battuta, the greatest of known medieval travellers,
“Cannibal envoys, whom the mansa presented with a slave girl, appeared at court to thank him, daubed with the blood of the gift they had just consumed”.
I haven’t seen that one in any textbooks.
While I can’t particularly recommend this book, particularly for those who haven’t read a lot of world history, it is worth dipping in and out of if you wanted to consider the effects of environment of the societies they shape and which in turn shape them.
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on 6 June 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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on 19 March 2003
"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.)
BUT
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. After some checking in "Civilizations", he has copied whole pages of his earlier work and put it in "Civilizations". Parts concerning the Polynesians are the same, the part on the 6th century philosopher Boethius is the same etc. There are numerous examples. I found it really annoying.
It should have been 3.5 stars, because I did enjoy reading the book. I just don't like paying for the same text twice without knowing that I do.
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on 5 January 2007
It's not an easy book, but neither is it half so hard, or dry or difficult as you might fear. Don't be put off by the sheer size of this very weighty tome; the style is engaging, and if you have even a passing interest in the subject it will draw you in effortlessly.

The first section discusses and examines just what is "civilization"; thereafter the author takes us on a tour of several amazing civilizations to illustrate his position. This is never less than interesting and at times is extraordinary.

Worth reading, and worth reading slowly; savour and digest it.
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on 6 November 2001
This book is excellent. Friendly and charming...history is offered to you rather than thrust at you.
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on 11 November 2001
From the blurb you'd expect a radical "revaluation of values" but instead we get a strange kind of package tour around world history taking in all the usual highlights eg the pyramids, greek philosophy, aztec temples etc etc. albeit by a more circuitous route. Any overall theory of what civilization means gets lost in the process. Very disappointing
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