Count the women! It has become a habit of our times. How many women are there in Parliament? How many sit on company boards? How many review books? The counting habit irritates those who take refuge in the idea of meritocracy and gnaws at those who think that equal representation matters. If you are one of the gnawed at, you will find yourself feeling diminished by Theodore Zeldin’s new book – which is ironic, because its intention is to teach you how to feel most fully alive.
According to Zeldin, we have come to a crisis in history: a crisis in the search for meaning that none of the old prescriptions, such as democracy, science or wealth, have provided a cure for. Zeldin’s solution is no less than to conduct a conversation with ‘humanity’, not only those seven billion people living now, but also those who have lived at all times and in all places around the globe. Not one to shy away from the grand pronouncement, he writes, ‘I shall cross the most formidable barrier that separates humans, the barrier of death.’ Each chapter begins with a character ‘from a different epoch and civilisation’ who has struggled or triumphed, or both, and we are invited to learn from their experiences. It is difficult, though, to learn from other people when you cannot see yourself