May 4, 2011

A World Lit Only by Fire, by William Manchester

Since I first expressed interest in the Middle Ages, people have been telling me to read this book. Funny, since it's actually about the Renaissance...

The writing is undeniably engaging. Manchester, despite his penchant for rather esoteric vocabulary, is quite readable. His narrative is impassioned and informative, without ever sounding dry. He tends, in fact, to get a little over-emotional at times. The end of his book quickly becomes a paean to heroism, generally, and Ferdinand Magellan, specifically, and it ends on the rather uncomfortable note (even for an atheist) of insisting that religion and the belief in God are dying and will continue to fade away. I don't necessarily disagree with Manchester on this point - though in light of recent cultural happenings, perhaps it is too soon to reach such a conclusion - but the tone is almost denigrating towards those who do still espouse religious beliefs.

I also ran into the same problem that I did with Charles Freeman, namely, that Manchester seemed to begin with the base assumption that the medieval period was absolutely, positively, disgustingly horrendous. Now, I'm not about to argue that it was a fantastic place and time to live, but I do try to withhold certain judgments because, as a product of my own time and place, it is impossible for me to truly comprehend what it was like living back then. Sure, life expectancy was terrible, and hygiene wasn't even close to acceptable, and religious/"superstitious" (Manchester's own term) beliefs were unquestioned, but had I actually lived then, having not known anything else, would it really have been all that bad?

In short, though Manchester's writing is excellent and informative, I prefer my non-fiction reading to be a little less judgmental, and a little less preachy.

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