This history of Freemasonry is well received, also among members. It has been translated into several languages and it has different editions. That did not bring the book very high on my reading list, but in the end I was curious enough to give it a try. Well, I am quite unimpressed…
Rather than being a history of Freemasonry, the book is more a social history of Freemasonry. Perhaps the subtitle should have made that more obvious to me: “how Freemasons made the modern world”.
I find the book annoyingly sensationalist. It starts with the memoirs of John Coustos who was taken by the inquisition and confessed to a great many things under torture. After chapters about the art of memory and the days around 1717 London you will mostly read about Freemasonry in connection to large social events. Endless numbers of pages about Freemasonry and the Carbonari, the Maffia, the P2 lodge scandal in Italy; Freemasonry in fascist and National-Socialist regimes, the French Revolution, the US Confederation, colonies, etc. It all says little about Freemasonry as an organisation (or actually many organisations), the history of its symbols and rituals, etc.
You can indeed read about how Freemasons helped create the modern world, but in most cases individual members, not lodges or Grand Lodges. Only here and there you will read something about developments within Freemasonry. The question of the Grand Architect of the Universe or the membership of women are either mentioned in passing or in a context that apparently is regarded more interesting. So no history of Le Droit Humain, but an interview with a man that became a woman within the Grand Orient de France many years after mixed gender Freemasonry was founded for example. The history of Prince Hall (‘black Freemasonry’) and the relation to traditional ‘white’ Grand Lodge is spoken of as well.
The author seems to have traveled the world, visited many places, interviewed many people and concludes that members are usually the good guys that do not deserve the bad press that Freemasonry has often received for its entire existence. To show that there is nothing anywhere near the exiting descriptions that Freemasonry often gets, he opens with way too detailed descriptions of initiations, including passwords, grips and steps. This may show that the Masonic “secrets” are quite boring, but apart from that this really does not help his readers. Perhaps the author does not realize that such details spoil the surprise for prospective members. Besides, that he found passwords, grips, steps and whatnot in one ritual, does not mean that these are the same everywhere. This can only lead to confusion. He had better just mentioned that there are passwords, grips, steps, etc.
In any case, the book is not completely boring, but I really wonder where all the applause about it comes from.
2020 PublicAffairs, isbn 161039867X