EncyclopedianBritannicanby Brian RobertsonnThe Birth of the Modern: WorldnSociety 1815-1830nby Paul JohnsonnNew York: HarperCollins;n1,095 pp., $35.00nPaul Johnson has done it again: henhas written a book so huge in scopenthat it fairly begs to be challenged bynacademics as a cursory treatment ofnhistory.nIn the course of one thousand pages,nThe Birth of the Modern: World Societyncovers subjects as diverse as thentreatment of animals by human beings;nthe origin of the modern conception ofnartists; the repercussions of the NapoleonicnWars on the West; literary andnpolihcal rivalries among the intelligentsianof America, France, and GreatnBritain; the growing abolitionist movement;nthe treatment of criminals; thendevelopment of technology; the politicalnramifications of industrialization;nthe widespread use of opium; the evolutionnof painting, music, and fashion;nthe state of transportation; and thengrowing place of women in society.nThis eclectic approach is normally annobject of derision among “serious”nhistorians, who tend to regard exhaustivendetail restricted to a particular timenand place as a sign of genuine scholarship.nJohnson has never been prone tonrestraint in his choice of subject matter.nSome of his previous gargantuan effortsnhave included a history of thenworid from the 1920’s to the 1980’s, anhistory of Christianity, and a history ofnthe Jews. If this monster of a book is andeparture from previous form, it isnbecause in it he has limited himself to ansmaller time frame, and a more explicitntheme: the intellectual and technologicalnorigins of the modern world. Itntherefore demands a greater cohesivenessnthan the others, and although thenbirth of the modern world is always innhis sights, the chronicle often wandersn34/CHRONICLESnREVIEWSnso far and wide that it is hard not fornthe reader to become lost in the mountainsnof data and the continual digressions.nBut that is all right. The digressionsnusually take the form of minibiographiesnof eminent men and womennof the era, and that happens to benwhat Mr. Johnson does best.nIndeed, the most memorable passagesnin the book are the strikingly vividnportraits of individual statesmen, inventors,nand artists of the period. Johnsonnis a master at using contemporaryndiaries and correspondence to bringngreat men to life. The volatile GeneralnJackson with his history of dueling andninsubordination (his totally unauthorizednexpulsion of the Gherokee fromnGeorgia and his conquest of Florida);nhis opponent in the first popular presidentialncontest in American history,nthe brilliant and misanthropic JohnnQuincy Adams; that punctilious opponentnof modernity, the poet Wordsworth,nfighhng to maintain the oldnEnglish political system and the pastoralncountryside of his youth in the facenof the “radicals” (who included Byronnand Shelley); the prude-turned-revolutionary,nVictor Hugo, leading the culturalnwar between age and youth; thenconsciously bohemian prototype of thenartist as romanhc, Ludwig van Beethoven,nproudly flaunting protocol in thenpresence of the aristocracy — all makenfor fascinating reading.nWhat becomes tiresome is Johnson’snrelentlessly empirical approach tonhistory, in which everything is quantifiable,nall judgments are definitive, andnall motives are crystal clear. Johnsonnhimself represents a peculiarly modernnnotion of the study of history, whichnpretends to scientific accuracy as wellnas disinterested objectivity. But thisnconcept ultimately produces a bloodlessnart because it does not so much tellna story as solve a puzzle. While thenpieces of that puzzle may be fascinatingnin their size and shape, still younknow that they will invariably be madento fit. Pre-modern writers had morenrespect for the mysterious nature ofnhistory, which they saw as a story withnmore loose ends than pat answers.nThere was more reverence for thennnastonishing development of incidentsnthat make up any account, an appreciationnthat the drama of the events cannonly be properly communicated by thenmethods of the fiction writer.nPerhaps this explains the popularity .nof historical novels when comparednwith that of academic history. Withoutnallowing their work to degenerate intonmere chronicle, the better authors usentheir comprehensive knowledge of thenperiod to unobtrusively fill in the narrativenwith authentic physical detail. Butnthe main thing must be the story itself:nknowledge of the era and its customs isnwhat allows the story to flow gracefully,nwhile giving the reader a genuinenfeel for the texture of contemporarynlife. In this way, characters in a wellwrittennhistorical novel take flesh andnpass before one’s eyes.nJohnson takes almost the reversenapproach. He hits on a subject — say,ndueling — and then exhaustivelynchronicles contemporary attitudes,npractice, fatalities, the technology ofnweaponry, and so forth. Along the way,nhe may-provide an anecdote that henfeels is particularly illustrative of thenfacts he relates. “The story lines thatnweave among the one thousand pagesnbecome somewhat disconnected interruptionsnof a continuous chronicle. Inneffect, the book comes oflF as more ofnan encyclopedia than a history of thenera.nBut it is quite an encyclopediannevertheless. As Johnson says in thenpreface, “The book deals with thenwhole world and has no one angle ofnvision,” although he concedes that “anspecially prominent place is accordednto Britain, for during these years Britainnwas the most influential of thenpowers.” Indeed, at a time when Westernncultural influence and intellectualndominance is generally decried in thenuniversities, it is refreshing to read anbook that reminds us of all the materialnand ethical benefits that have resultednfrom Western dominion. Johnson veritablyncelebrates the British Empire atnthe height of its authority.nUnfortunately, though, Johnsonndoes not wresfle with the more troublingnaspects of the birth of “moderni-n