The Seekers

By Daniel J. Boorstin

There is no denying Daniel J. Boorstin’s place as one of America’s most respected historical scholars. For more than 40 years he has been bringing the past to life, earning both critical and popular success. His encyclopedic volumes take their form from his longstanding fondness for reference books and general treatises, combining comprehensiveness with accessibility.

The Seekers is the last of a trilogy that began with sweeping surveys of the sciences (The Discoverers) and the arts (The Creators). This time out Boorstin’s focus is on those thinkers who have sought an answer to “the eternal Why.” Covering wide stretches of philosophy, history, politics, and religion, The Seekers tells the story of man’s attempt to understand the meaning and purpose of existence.

For readers looking for a quick overview, The Seekers will be just the thing. It is divided into brief (two- to three-page) chapters that provide summaries of the major personalities and concepts involved. And the writing, while sometimes overweight (“their voices resound across the millennia”), is rarely a drag upon the text.

But feminists beware! Let the subtitle be a warning: This is man’s quest, and his world. There is not one woman among the more than 30 major figures discussed. In fact, when I was finished I had trouble remembering if any women had been mentioned at all. A glance at the index revealed passing references to less than a dozen names.

More demanding readers will also be disappointed. Weighing in at less than 300 pages, The Seekers spreads itself very thin. Boorstin’s analysis, which is presented chronologically, goes from Homer and the Hebrew prophets to Albert Einstein. In the pages in between he deals with Bacon, Aristotle, Rousseau, Herodotus, Bergson, Marx, Voltaire, Jefferson, Kierkegaard, Descartes . . . the list goes on.

The effect is that of a shotgun blast of learning. It is significant that the book is without an introduction or conclusion – summary would be impossible. The range and volume of material collected defies any attempt at an overall thesis. The criteria for selection – those Seekers “who have spoken most eloquently and suggestively to me of western man’s search, his dilemmas, and his rewards” – simply casts the net too wide.

Sometimes even the best-intentioned writers bite off more than they can chew. Less, in this case, would have been more.

Review first published September 12, 1998.


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