The stories that make up the history of mankind are written by people. We are not the playthings of the gods; nor is anything preordained, predestined or inevitable. Every great and wicked advance in our story results from the action or inaction of men and women. Aeneid once wrote “Fortune favors the bold”. Pasteur said “Chance favors only the prepared mind”. It is there, in the intersection of boldness and preparation where great human achievement takes place.
“Decisive Moments in History” by Stefan Zweig is a compendium of these moments. A collection of short histories of people who made extraordinary efforts and – in both success and failure – left their mark upon history. The stories of tremendous risks by fundamentally flawed individuals (as we all are) who nevertheless achieved greatness and immortality through their efforts against all odds. I often wonder about this in our new un-private, socially intrusive, media-obsessed, trigger-happy world – where people are prejudged subjectively and de-platformed or badgered into submission based upon who their ancestors were or what their skin color is, or in response to whatever is the vapid fad of the moment.
Now the down-side. This book is terribly over-written. The excessive use of metaphors and similes and adjectives, the anthropomorphizing of everything, the attempts to create suspense and intrigue and empathy in the short pages of each history make the book grating and at the end almost unreadable. The whip-lashing points-of-view careening wildly as each new character emerges, even including inanimate objects which are given their own feelings and motivations, is jarring. Zweig would have done better to write more simply – for the stories in their power speak for themselves. Instead the resulting product is amateurish; which is a shame, for the point of the book – BE BOLD!! – is certainly a lesson worth delivering.