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TOP 500 REVIEWERon January 5, 2012
Prolific Oxford, Harvard and Stanford professor Niall Ferguson continues his excellent string of publications with a well researched and erudite tour of the past 500 years of western civilization. The book is very, very detailed (over 700 end notes, plus a 30 page bibliography), but extremely readable. Its many facts are both interesting and woven together logically and chronologically to support a central thesis - that the West has predominated because it developed six killer apps: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic.

Not just another book trumpeting the West's superiority, Ferguson highlights the West's good luck as well as it's superior political and economic structure. He notes the West's willingness to have its killer apps downloaded by other countries, which will mean more wealth for all but also a change in the balance of power.

Like all history books, the content is filtered through the author's particular lens - in this case a right wing, British Empire loving polymath and wit - but Ferguson is thorough in supporting his thesis, confronting other historians' theories and mistakes head-on, and documenting his own views with ample political, economic and cultural references and a fair amount of humour. The prolific references range from esoteric to pop-cultural (e.g. Sid Meier's Civilization V computer game).

There are some minor flaws - the chapter on medicine is mostly about subjects other than medicine; the slave trade to the Americas listed as beginning in 1450, almost half a century before Columbus' voyage to the New World; and Ferguson seems curiously unscientific in his footnote musing that genetics may explain Jews' disproportionate success in arts, science and commerce - but on the whole this is an excellent, densely packed historical tour.

For those familiar with Ferguson's other works, Civilization falls somewhere between his story filled and highly readable Ascent of Money: Financial History of the World and his more academic The Pity Of War Explaining World War I. A broad, detailed canvas with the most interesting of stories laying the foundation for us to speculate about the future of western civilization and the rise of China.

Much better and more thought provoking than other, often economics oriented, books heralding the decline of the West. Civilization the television series will surely cross the Atlantic to North American viewers, just as 'The Ascent of Money' did, but read the book for its rich detail. Buy it, read it, and reflect on the future of both the West and the Rest.
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The problem with TV-series-driven writing is the blurring of priorities. I had a hard time pinpointing what was I not enjoying about this undoubtedly well written book. I agree with the main argument, and it is clearly articulated. The problem lies with the gimmicky twists, such as calling the West's key drivers of success the "killer apps," the many digressions sprinkled throughout the text, as well as with the troubling not-so-rigorous use of historical data and timelines. So, was Ferguson's priority to support the claim of western success on sound analytical bases, or rather to make good TV episodes' narrative? I invite you to be the judge. Whatever the case, the weakest part of the book is the conclusion.
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on March 22, 2012
As with the `Ascent of Money' and previous books by Dr. Ferguson, Civilization was conceived from the start as both a television series and a book. One senses exactly where the adverts will be inserted and cringes slightly at the theatrical flair (e.g. "born again" morphed into "porn again"). The upside is the story moves along at a good clip without getting bogged down in excessive details or alternate interpretations. The downside is frequently being left hungry for greater substantiation. For example, at one point Dr. Ferguson acknowledges some historians attribute Great Britain's rise to global supremacy to an early start with the industrial revolution but maintains the real reason was the systems developed to amass and invest capital. While that seems plausible it would be more convincing with some evidence and discussion to back up the statement.

The stated purpose for Dr. Ferguson's book is revealing the "six killer apps" that account for Western dominance but he strays, not infrequently, to a more general look at Western history. Case in point: while he describes medicine as "the West's most remarkable killer application" the chapter devoted to medicine spends more time examining the French revolution and subsequent imperialism than on the supposed subject of the chapter.

One of the more interesting revelations and one that Dr. Ferguson examines in greater detail is the importance of the Protestant Ethic to the West's success and the surprising widespread adoption of Christianity in Asia, particularly China. For me, this section alone was worth the price of admission.

Despite the minor shortcomings the book is attention-grabbing, readable and timely. Timely, not just because the West is currently struggling to recover from the 2008 financial crisis but, from a broader perspective, because we are very likely currently living through the ascendance of non-Western civilization(s) to join the West at the pinnacle of human culture. Competing civilizations are achieving this feat by copying what worked for the West. If we (the West) are to avoid following past civilizations into decline it behoves us to understand and uphold the reasons for our success, at least as well as those who are copying us. Dr. Ferguson takes a good step in that direction.

A worthy book. Some might understandably find it tempting to wait for the television series.
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Ferguson sets out to explain how and why, Western Civilization became the world`s dominate force. Ferguson also outlines, why other areas of the globe remained an economic backwater. Ferguson boils down the last five hundred years of western success, to a list of six essential components.

Here is the list

Each ingredient has its own chapter. Ferguson then takes the reader through various historical lessons. These historic episodes help the reader understand, how these listed factors applied to western success. Some of the history will be very familiar to reader. I am also willing to bet, most readers will also discover a few new areas of history, that Ferguson uncovers.

The conclusion of the book is all about how other countries, have started to apply western methods of success. Will the rise of strong Asian economies eclipse the growth of the west?

This book should really be part one of a series. Part two could be all about how current western societies, have moved away from the six factors of economic prosperity.

One caution I may make to a prospective reader of this book. The over all theme is a somewhat Libertarian message. This will be the deciding factor, in your potential enjoyment of the book.
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I have always admired Ferguson as one of those few historians who offers his readers a very balanced, big-picture context for understanding the lessons a study of history might teach us. To get to that level of appreciation, Ferguson, in honour of an earlier great historian, suggests that the events of the past have a very instructive way of re-appearing in the present in order to point us to the future. To enforce this point, Ferguson focuses this comparative study on how western civilizations - those large cultural units in time and space - have come to dominate the modern world scene, and how they are now facing a very uncertain future based on a growing competition from new global forces. If the West is seen through the lenses of progress, Ferguson has news for us his readers. All is not rosy. To get where they are today, western nations like Britain, the US, France and Germany have had to use all kinds of competitive concepts to assert their superiority: war, industrialization, capitalism, science, intellectual property, democracy, and exploration. Along the way, the results of modernization have at best been mixed. With a succession of financial crisis, the expansion of global economy, and the growing failure of military technology to secure social and political stability may suggest that the world is about to undergo a major historical shift from west to east. The West's ability to design, order and control its future is very much in doubt, given the fact that other cultures are looking for their place in the sun and may have the means to achieve it: capital, education, population, and technology. What makes Ferguson's thesis so appealing is his ability to back it up with evidence garnered from a wide range of academic sources that lay out in irrefutable fashion the progression of events signalling the geopolitical rise and fall of western values. This book is as much a story of modern history as a primer on how to interpret its many accomplishments and failings. I strongly recommend this very readable book to anyone who is interested in identifying and understanding significant trends transpiring before their very eyes.
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on August 26, 2012
Niall Ferguson takes the reader across the globe, tracking the rise of Western civilization in a thorough, yet accesible manner. The sheer density and depth of knowledge displayed by Ferguson is impressive, and he uses this knowledge to weave a solid narrative throughout the book. The book is strongest in the early and middle parts, while I feel that the conclusion and speculation of what the future holds for modern global economies could have been explored in more detail (particularly with regards to Asian and South American economies). In all, a solid read, with good pacing and pleasingly informative.
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on December 5, 2012
How does he do it! Civilization: The West and the Rest. How can one authour in one book provide such an intesting, readble and imaginative review of the history of the world.It's uniqueness is in the breadth of knowlege expresssed painlessly by the authout. Who else would ever think of "blue jeans" as a significant item in the spread of civilization. Such insights make this a volume of analysis, humour and value that once started cannot be put down.
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on January 8, 2012
This book is right up to Mr.Ferguson's already exacting standards. A really first rate read for anyone who is interested in the evolving interface between the Western developed countries and those now emerging as serious competitors. Brilliant and Well Done!
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on December 5, 2011
History repeats itself.
If you want to know how to win in the new world order you must understand your world history.
This is a relevant, thoughtful and painless way to do it.
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on February 7, 2014
Just wish I could remember the details! I heard Ferguson interviewed on CBC and was impressed with his knowledge, but one can't help wondering how long the current primary players will stay on top.
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