The Age of Reason is the best single volume summary I have read to date of 18th century society — principally European, though also covering in less depth the American and British — including the cultural, intellectual and political life. Harold Nicolson's intelligence, graceful writing style, wit, and — importantly — deep reading and study of the 18th century makes this survey a joy to read, from beginning to end. (In fact, he wrote several books on important people in the 18th century, which are listed on his Wikipedia page. ) Nicolson not only captures, but also puts into context, the overlapping intellectual, philosophical, political, religious and cultural viewpoints, the collective atmosphere of such influences, the events they related to and the most significant figures of the 18th century that were involved.
As a one-volume accomplishment, it is outstanding for its analysis, portrayal and critique of the glorious, confabulated world of that significant period in Western civilisation's historical development. The only other one-volume study worthy of comparison, notably because it is also so wide-ranging and comprehensive in its survey — but through a selection of excerpts from writers of the period, and covering all key aspects of society, from gender and race, reason and nature, crime and punishment, to manners and morals, etc. , is The Portable Enlightenment Reader, one of the excellent books in the series of anthologies published by the Viking Portable Library.
There really is no better achievement of narrative, or one more beautifully written, than Nicolson's brief, clever elucidations of the most important, larger-than-life and frankly highly entertaining figures of the time (sometimes with the delicious hindsight that we can afford) , including: Voltaire, Frederick the Great, The ‘Salons', Horace Walpole, Catherine the Great, Jonathan Swift, Benjamin Franklin, The Encylopedie (Diderot, et al), Samuel Johnson, Tom Paine, Rousseau and several others, besides.
If, like me, you are fascinated by 18th century society (I admit I'm coming at this from reading from a European cultural viewpoint), there are some great books to enjoy. A couple of notes, FYI:
- All books currently in print have an asterisk before their title and you can buy them with free worldwide delivery from BookDepository.com. If it isn't, my recommendation is that you look for a cheap secondhand copy via Bookfinder.com — probably the most comprehensive book search website in the world and where you are likely to find several editions at low-cost; otherwise, try Amazon's marketplace (simply search for the title, and usually several low-cost options will be available), or abebooks (.co.uk or .com).
- The books by Isaiah Berlin (The Age of Enlightenment) and Leslie Stephen (History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century[in two volumes]), while clearly and intelligently written like all the others I recommend, are definitely more demanding on the mind, requiring more active thinking (albeit rewarded!) rather than reading for pleasure alone.
- * The Enlightenment - Volume Two of Two Volumes by Peter Gay