An Intimate History of Humanity, Paperback Book
4.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


This extraordinarily wide-ranging study looks at the dilemmas of life today and shows how they need not have arisen.

Portraits of living people and historical figures are placed alongside each other as Zeldin discusses how men and women have lost and regained hope; how they have learnt to have interesting conversations; how some have acquired an immunity to loneliness; how new forms of love and desire have been invented; how respect has become more valued than power; how the art of escaping from one's troubles has developed; why even the privileged are often gloomy; and why parents and children are changing their minds about what they want from each other.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Publishing
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Social & cultural history
  • ISBN: 9780749396237

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Showing 1 - 2 of 2 reviews.

Review by
People who wish to escape from the grasp of the institutions of their time, and the opinions of the crowd, and indeed from ordinary life, are not misfits in modern society: their roots go back into furthest antiquity, as far as those of warriors; they were singing songs like these in ancient China.I arrive all alone, I sit down all alone.I have no regrets that people today do not know me.Only the spirit of the old tree, in the south of the cityknows for certain that I am an Immortal passing by.To ask what the practical results of escape might be is to miss the point of escape, which includes escape from purpose. Those who want a purpose must look beyond escape.Having acquired this book from a down-sizing relative, I was undecided about whether to read it or pass it on, but I was drawn in by the fascinating chapter headings, such as "How people have repeatedly lost hope, and how new encounters, and a new pair of spectacles, revive them", "How people searching for their roots are only beginning to look far and deep enough", and "How the art of escaping from one's troubles has developed, but not the art of knowing where to escape to", which made it clear that it was an unusual kind of history book..It has been said that tor those who 'feel', life is a tragedy and for those who 'think', it is a comedy. There is no need to live only half a life. for those who both think and feel, life is an adventure.Each chapter begins with a description of how one or more people, mostly French women, think and feel about their lives, followed by a discussion of how human behaviour and attitudes have changed over the centuries, illustrated by examples from various countries and historical eras. I was not keen on the descriptions of the women at the beginning of every chapter. The author delved into their deepest motivations and insecurities in his interviews with the women, but then presented them in an extremely off-putting way, so that they come across as cold and self-centred. I did find them less annoying towards the end of the book, but I may just have got used to the style of the descriptions.The scope of the book is enormous, covering large swathes of history and the world, but it is also intimate as the title says, with its concentration on topics such as love and loneliness, compassion and curiosity, power and pessimism, and the vexed question of whether men and women can ever really communicate. Some kinds of behaviour have changed gradually over the centuries, but other ideas and attitudes seem to be cyclical. Cultures tend to alternate between optimism and pessimism, and there will often be a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo that results in permissive decades (or even centuries) being followed by more restrictive decades, before swinging back again.Three centuries of lonely ridicule followed, and astrologers almost vanished. It looked as though old ideas could be consigned once and for all to the dustbin. but no, they do not vanish, and when there is a crisis, and when people lose hope, or when they feel that the world is changing too fast and not giving them what they want, when they do not know where to turn, they discover that the old ways were only packed away in their bottom drawer. they fetch them out, and try them on again.This wide-ranging and intriguing book is definitely a keeper, but next time I read it I may skip over the descriptions of the women.
Review by

I have read numerous history books that take, in some cases, an eagle's eye view of the world, looking down on all that has happened and summing it up in a few hundred pages, such as Gombrich's excellent Children's History of the World; there are others that have taken a single era or epoch or even a single year, and examined it minutely, looking at the famous people who lived in that time and what they did and the impact they had on the world - Dava Sobel's Longitude is a reasonable example.However, I have never read a book that looked at shared histories, the histories of real, everyday people, and how their thoughts and actions are influenced by the weight of history that there is all around us. Zeldin's book is that book, a book that looks at the way people behave and then examines the historical reasons for these actions, a book that makes one believe that history is not what we'd thought it was. It is a real paradigm-shifter.