A courageous, often profound, and extraordinary attempt by one of England's best historians to cut through the pessimism and parochialism of the profession and to find the bonds of humanity underlying its conventional divisions. Zeldin (History/Oxford Univ.; The French, 1983, etc.) ranges with prodigious learning over different civilizations and epochs, dealing with subjects as disparate as why men and women find it difficult to talk to one another and why political scientists have misunderstood the animal kingdom. His method is anything but academic: He starts most chapters with an interview or description of a person, usually French and usually a woman (``because many women seem to me to be looking at life with fresh eyes'') before broadening the discussion to analyze the nature of the concerns expressed, their historical origins, and the ways in which different civilizations have dealt with them. In doing so, he raises some questions shunned by the academic world and asks others more likely to be raised in magazines and self-help books: ``Is it inevitable,'' he asks, ``that as women become increasingly adventurous and have ever higher expectations of life, they will find men less and less adequate?'' Why are humans ``still so awkward...with even 40 per cent of Americans...complaining that they are too shy to speak freely?'' In answering questions like this, he repeatedly produces the unusual fact or the revisionist view: Writing of Islamic societies, for instance, he notes that sociability, not war, is considered the defining element of the good life. Ultimately, this is a call for a sense of the richness of life and for optimism, which he defines as ``awareness that despite nastiness and stupidity, there is something else too. Pessimism is resignation, an inability to find a way out.'' Not always as skeptical as he might be (Stalin and Hitler, he says, ``remained desperately hungry for respect''), but no short review can do justice to the richness, humor, humanity, and range of this important book.