BOOK REVIEW / Age of curiosity: 'An Intimate History of Humanity' - Theodore Zeldin: Sinclair-Stevenson 20 pounds

THE Oxford historian Theodore Zeldin has taken the academically unfashionable step of writing a book which aims to change our lives. It is an accessible, audacious and thought- provoking work which presents history as a liberating force, one which can reveal the multiplicity of human possibilities, and thereby free us from the impasses of the present.

Zeldin's title is somewhat misleading. This is no history in the chronological sense, nor is it specifically a study of love and friendship. Rather, the book asks a host of questions about the nature of human needs and desires, amounting to a grand survey of the ends of life. It is divided into 25 essays, with such titles as 'How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations', 'How people have freed themselves from fear by finding new fears', and 'How even astrologers resist their destiny'.

The innovative part of Zeldin's project is the way he mixes general reflections with concrete settings, as he couples his thoughts to the lives of real people he has interviewed, who are mainly French and female (he admits to finding women more interesting than men). The women are ordinary - bureaucrats, journalists, housekeepers, mothers - but Zeldin endows them with extraordinary significance by linking their concerns to world history. Zeldin shuttles from late-20th-century topics which would not be out of place in the pages of Cosmopolitan to discussions of ancient Chinese philosophy and the European Enlightenment. Each chapter ends with a reading list, 'to suggest directions in which the reader's imagination can travel, according to its own tastes, in the same way as a few drinks might be tasted after a meal,' explains Zeldin, who likes drawing dietary analogies and is joint chairman of the Oxford Food Symposium. The effect flatteringly endows the everyday with global significance, though Zeldin's greater intention is to fight the idea of historical determinism.

By tracing how concepts of personal fulfilment, sexual relations or family obligation have differed across time, Zeldin encourages us to envisage altering them again, if we wish: 'I have tried to open up the memories of the whole of humanity, and to use them to place the dilemmas of the present in a perspective which is not dominated by the idea of perpetual conflict.'

Because Zeldin's ambitions are great, he is an easy target for those who would argue that he has bitten off more than he can chew. The prose reflects a general difficulty of finding a common language in which to do justice to the big ideas. Anglo-Saxon culture shuns generalisation and distrusts the grand statement, and Zeldin does sometimes hover precariously over the dividing line separating profundity from banality ('In every life there is an element of victory over fear, which needs to be searched for, though it may be a false victory').

The best chapters in the book marshal examples to nourish a brilliantly illuminating argument, the worst replace psychological or philosophical insight with long lists of facts telling us little other than that Zeldin has read a lot of history. These individual failings reflect a general problem of focus; there are enough common themes in the book to suggest that Zeldin is not simply presenting us with disparate thoughts on the meaning of life, but he lacks the rigour to pull them to a conclusion - beyond his initial point that the past shows us ways we can live differently in the future.

But this does not detract from the triumph. Zeldin's is an optimistic work, deeply humane and sensitively concerned with finding answers to the knots in which we tie ourselves. It is without cynicism, full of possibility and enthusiasm. 'The age of discovery has rarely begun . . . curiosity is expanding as never before,' declares Zeldin, in sharp contrast to the majority of contemporary cultural commentators who make Spengler look an optimist.

Zeldin's feat is to display his sincerity in a way which makes it seem churlish to accuse him of mawkishness when he writes, 'It is in the power of everybody, with a little courage, to hold out a hand to someone different, to listen, to attempt to increase, by even a tiny amount, the quantity of kindness and humanity in the world.'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum