Weimar Culture, by Peter Gay
This book is a short, opinionated cultural history of Weimar Germany.
“Short and opinionated” is basically the only way I can deal with reading cultural or intellectual history. When a writer attempts to be balanced and encyclopaedic, they erode any sense of excitement from the people or works being described.
Take the Warburg Institute. Wikipedia will tell you that it is a cultural history research institute, founded in Hamburg and then moving to London in 1933. Peter Gay gives some idea why you might care:
There was in [Warburg], Panofsky has written, “an enormous tension between the rational and the irrational” which induced in him “not a romantic split, but a fascinating combination of brilliant wit and dark melancholy, the keenest rational criticism and most empathetic readiness to help.”14 It was Warburg’s special achievement to recognize—I am tempted to say, re-experience—the full range of the classical heritage, which was, for him, more than serene temples and Latin poems; it was dark as it was light, and its legacy was superstitious beliefs and magical practices quite as much as sculpture and poetry. Warburg’s models—Burckhardt, Nietzsche, and Usener—set his problem and suggested its solution: the study of the survival of the classical heritage demanded a broad view of cultural history, an appreciation of the Dionysian aspects of life, and close attention to man’s religious experience.
I find Gay’s prose style captivating. As the author of a book on Style in History, he obviously also values the craft of writing.