Archived Reading Room

Mountain in the clouds: a new year’s resolution

Mountain in the clouds: a new year’s resolution

There it stood on a sale table, all 11 volumes lined up tight and orderly as cadets on parade, Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization.

The Friends of the Library had slapped a price tag on Volume IV.


Surely, I thought, the Friends intended $4 per volume. When I checked with the cashier, however, she shook her head. Four bucks, and the Durants, all 11 of them, could be mine.

At my favorite coffee shop, a 16-ounce Ethiopian costs $4.10, including tax. At my local grocery store, a rotisserie-cooked whole chicken goes for $4.99. At the Dollar Store north of town, I can plunk down four George Washingtons for bubble gum and enslave an entire tribe of grandchildren for a week or more.

Will Durant, joined later by his wife Ariel, spent over 40 years creating this history. The Story of Civilization became a best seller. Book clubs once offered this set at a low price as an enticement for membership, and in 1968 Volume X, Rousseau and Revolution, won the Pulitzer for General Nonfiction.

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Now there it sat, a life’s work in all its faded glory, pathetic and forlorn as an evicted widow, each hefty volume costing less than 37 cents.

It was deplorable.

It was atrocious.

It was irresistible.

When you are crazy about books, and a deal like this one crosses your path, you immediately acquire those symptoms associated with love at first sight or the onset of influenza. Your blood pressure blossoms, your face becomse flushed, your palms dampen, and your brain races like a NASCAR driver on the final lap.

Past experience teaches only two possible cures for such book lust: the slow cure, where you muster your resolve and walk away, shoulders slumped, hands jammed in your pockets, pursued for hours or even days by pangs of conscience, another brick added to your wheelbarrow of regrets, or the quick cure, where you put down your money, stuff those books into the trunk of your car, and drive like the wind.

In this case, I wanted the quick cure.

There was only one major complication.

For more than a quarter of a century, a set of the Durant histories, also purchased at a Friends sale, has decorated my bookshelves. I say decorated because I so rarely open them. They are “dipper books,” that is, volumes to be opened on random occasions, perused for a few minutes, and returned to the shelf until the urge again strikes to learn something about the wisdom of Confucius, the conversion of Constantine, or the beheading of Marie Antoinette

Otherwise, nada.

Given that lethargic track record, I couldn’t justify giving up another 23 inches of shelf space for Will and Ariel. The $4 price was a bucket of gasoline thrown onto the match head of my desire, but if I carried off The Story of Civilization for myself, I’d look like a maniac, even to the man in the glass.

For most of us, rationalization comes as easily as crossing a country road, and so it was with me. As I stood guard over the Durants, I recollected that my good friend John had recently told me how much he enjoyed reading non-fiction these days, his tastes having shifted from novels to biographies and histories.

It took me two trips to carry Will and Ariel to the cashier’s desk.

There you go, John, I thought as I handed over five singles, kicking in an extra buck for the Friends. That should give you enough reading for a few years.

It was a fine gift — I boxed the books and wrapped them in Christmas paper for the occasion, and John was delighted—but with unforeseen and challenging consequences.

Here is what happened: For the next few days, whenever I passed my own set of Durants, they caught my eye, slowing my pace and demanding my attention like that Sunday afternoon stranger whose striking demeanor intrudes, however briefly, on our sidewalk peregrinations.

A crazy idea stole over me. Suppose, I wondered, I read this collection in its entirety? Suppose instead of dipping, I opened Volume I to page one and read the entire set cover to cover?

I felt like a novice climber contemplating Everest. Could I tackle such a mountain of words?

The mountain is formidable. The Story of Civilization weighs in at a hefty 36.6 pounds, and excluding the bibliographical notes, the footnotes, and the indices at the end of each volume, runs to 8,945 pages.

The math was simple. At 100 pages a week, the climb would take me 89.45 weeks, or about 20 months.

Daunting, yes. But not impossible.

Recently I read of a 67-year-old woman who decided she wanted to run in a marathon. She had never run for exercise in her life, but her desire and passion led her to put on a pair of sneakers, leave the house, and walk a mile. Every day she walked through her neighborhood, extending the distance a little each time. Soon she was jogging and walking. In another six months, she was running. In the next seven years, she competed in a number of marathons and other distance races.

One step at a time, and sooner or later you can run a marathon. One page at a time, and sooner or later you can read the 8,945 pages of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization.

Twenty months to stand atop The Story of Civilization is too slow. Completing the climb a year from now — December 31, 2018 — has more of a ring to it, more a sense of adventure.

Hand me my boots and crampons, my helmet, pulleys, and carabiners.

I am going to have a go at the mountain.

We’ll see how far I get.

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