As the title of this book indicates, the project that McNeill and Riello have undertaken with this book is to chronicle the history of luxury. We often think of the age of luxury being a modern age, but as long as human beings have had the means to do so, there have been people with status and material goods, and people without those things. This text, which is relatively short (293 pages in the preview edition) is not quite that ambitious, but it does start by looking at luxury in the antique or Greco-Roman period – the first period for which the kind of detailed record required for a book like this exists. It then traces the history of luxury through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, looks at the interaction between East and West as sources of luxury goods, and then focuses on luxury in the 20th and 21st centuries.
If this list of topics sounds daunting, it shouldn’t. While the subject matter for the text is broad, the writing is the best kind of academic writing. It is clearly backed by intensive study and research, and even readers who are not familiar with this field of study will see that the authors clearly understand what they’re talking about, however, the writing is also clear and easy to read and understand. Even more casual readers will not get bogged down in jargon or academic terms. One exception is in the references to famous works of art. Both authors are professors of history, with strong design and art historical backgrounds. If readers don’t have at least a passing familiarity with the history of art, they may find it beneficial to read with a Google image search close at hand, so they can really understand the nuances of the argument.
While other arguments could be raised (particularly that there is a strong bias towards Western Culture), I think only the pickiest of readers will raise them. This book is well suited for use in undergraduate history and design courses, but it is also well suited for the interested amateur reader, and comes highly recommended from this reviewer (who used it as bedtime reading).
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