Zeldin was born into a Jewish family in Palestine and went to school in Egypt and at Aylesbury Grammar School. He entered Birkbeck College, London when he was 15, graduating in 1951. He then pursued a further undergraduate degree at Christ Church, Oxford, before studying for his DPhil at St Antony's College, Oxford.
Zeldin was first known as a historian of France but is today probably most famous internationally as the author of An Intimate History of Humanity (1994), a book which probes the personal preoccupations of people in many different civilisations, both in the past and in the present; it illuminates the way emotions, curiosities, relationships and fears have evolved through the centuries, and how they might have evolved differently. Since then he has focused on how work can be made less boring and frustrating, how conversation can be less superficial, and how individuals can be more honest with one another, putting their masks aside.
Zeldin's masterpiece is A History of French Passions (originally published as France, 1848–1945 in the Oxford History of Modern Europe), an idiosyncratic work examining the ambitions and frustrations, intellectual and imaginative life, tastes and prejudices of a vast range of people. The idea of France as a common unity is not easily discernible in this multi-volume book, and there is very little about politics in the conventional sense, although there are essays on the national appeal of Bonapartism and other cultural elements of French national politics.
 The Oxford Muse Foundation
The Oxford Muse Foundation (www.oxfordmuse.com) was formed by Zeldin in 2001. It describes its aims as being "to pioneer new methods to improve personal, work and intercultural relationships in ways that satisfy both private and public values."
One of its principal projects is the Muse Portrait Database. Individuals are free to submit their own self-portraits, including whatever they want the world to know about them. However, many of the portraits are written by another person in the "voice" of the subject, as the result of a conversation between the two. The Oxford Muse claims that, through such conversations, it can help people "to clarify their tastes, attitudes and goals in many different aspects of life; and to sum up the conclusions they have drawn from their experiences in their own words."
A selection of these portraits can be found in Guide to an Unknown City (2004), which contains the writings of a wide variety of Oxford residents, and in Guide to an Unknown University (2006), which, Zeldin claimed, "allowed professors, students, alumni, administrators and maintenance staff to reveal what they do not normally tell one another."
||This article contains too many or too-lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (January 2011)|
- "To be a catalyst is the ambition most appropriate for those who see the world as being in constant change, and who, without thinking that they can control it, wish to influence its direction."
- "The past is what provides us with the building blocks. Our job today is to create new buildings out of them."
- "What to do with too much information is the great riddle of our time."
- "To have a new vision of the future, it has always first been necessary to have a new vision of the past."
- "It is in the power of everybody, with a little courage, to hold out a hand to someone different, to listen, and to attempt to increase, even by a tiny amount, the quantity of kindness and humanity in the world. But it is careless to do so without remembering how previous efforts have failed, and how it has never been possible to predict for certain how a human being will behave. History, with its endless procession of passers-by, most of whose encounters have been missed opportunities, has so far been largely a chronicle of ability gone to waste. But next time two people meet, the result could be different. That is the origin of anxiety, but also of hope, and hope is the origin of humanity."
- “Humanity’s pride in being able to communicate better than any other creature is belied by most talk being greeted with silence or incomprehension."
- "There's no nation, no democracy which can write its own History without acknowledging a debt or a direct influence to France."
- "The wish to live as intensely as possible has subjected humans to the same dilemma as the water flea, which lives 108 days at 8 degrees Celsius, but only twenty-six days at 28 degrees, when its heart beats 15 million times in all. Technology has been a rapid heartbeat, compressing housework, travel, entertainment, squeezing more and more into the allotted span. Nobody expected that it would create the feeling that life moves too fast."
- The Political System of Napoleon III (1958)
- Edited (with Anne Troisier de Diaz) Émile Ollivier, Journal: 1946-1863 (1961)
- Émile Ollivier and the Liberal Empire of Napoleon III (1963)
- Conflicts in French Society: Anticlericalism, Education and Morals in the Nineteenth Century: Essays (1970)
- History of French Passions (5 volumes: Ambition and Love; Intellect and Pride; Taste and Corruption; Politics and Anger; Anxiety and Hypocrisy) (1973–1977)
- The French (1982)
- Foreword to Jeremy Jennings, Georges Sorel: The Character and Development of His Thought (1985)
- Introduction to Le tunnel sous la Manche: chronique d'une passion franco-anglaise (1987)
- Happiness (novel) (1988)
- An Intimate History of Humanity (1994)
- Conversation (2000)
- Guide to an Unknown City (2004)
- Guide to an Unknown University (2006)
- Gary Hill & Gerry Judah (with Jenny Blyth) (2007)
- Embassy of France in the US - French Foreign Policy/Fifteenth ambassadors’ conference
- Zeldin cited in Snowman, Daniel (2007). Historians. London: Palgrave, p.60.
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