I hit all the used book stores for a number of years buying up as many copies of the book as I could find. I must have accumulated over a hundred of the books, five of them hard backs. When I was teaching enriched world history I had the students read some of the short stories. The books (most were over twenty years old) fell to pieces rather quickly which is why I had to buy so many to keep a classroom set.
My generation bought this book like crazy and everyone was reading it in the late 60's and 70's. All of the people I spoke to about it would say, "I started, but never finished."
Which is what I did the first time I started reading it in high school. I picked it up again after college and got through the one story everyone bogged down in to find a number of really good short stories that a great many readers left unread. Being short stories makes for a conclusion and after you've read a few hundred pages and come to a conclusion it's kind of hard to pick it back up, which also works against the later parts of the book.
The story everyone hits like a brick wall is called "The Law," it deals with the split between Roman and Greek Catholicism and the rabbis committing the unwritten laws that had been around for centuries into the Talmud. Rather bland and dry stuff. My suggestion -- skip this story and go on. Kind of like trying to read the Bible starting with Genesis and proceeding, everyone does fine until they get to Leviticus, and then they give up.
Michener was not only a gifted story teller, but he put so much information into the stories that he was also a wonderful teacher.
What I learned from this book:
1. How civilization developed
2. How religion developed and changed over time
3. How regardless of technological development or religion people were people and had the same likes, dislikes, loves, hates, greed, altruism and either overcame their problems or were overwhelmed by them.
4. A respect and understanding of Western Asia, and I've never found anything better at explaining what is happening there and has happened there.
A few of my favorite short stories in the book:
The Bee Eater -- story that details moving from a cave to above ground shelter, hunting and gathering to farming.
King Of The Jews -- a first person narrative from a close friend of King Herod the Great.
Twilight Of An Empire -- the most important of all the stories in understanding this area today, and the one most people never read. It deals with the Jews of Eastern Europe fleeing the pogroms and trying to buy land in Palestine from corrupt officials, absentee landlords, the animosity of the Palestinians and how the Turks ripped off both sides with their system of bribery setting the stage for the continual warfare that's paralyzed the area.
It's not often a book written forty-three years ago can still educate, enlighten, and entertain as this one can. It's also still in print, on it's sixth edition.