Guns, Germs, and Steel
The Fates of Human Societies
by Jared Diamond
- Date finished: March 14, 2013
- Genre: Science, Anthropology, History, etc
- Year: 1997
- Project: n/a
- Reading List: Spring 2013, Time’s 100 Greatest Nonfiction Books
- Grade: A-
- Thoughts upon finishing:
First of all, before I say anything, I’d like to point out that I just noticed the Oxford comma in the title of Jared Diamond’s book. As an English/grammar nerd, I like that, Mr. Diamond (and/or, his editor). Good job.
Anyway, onto the review. I picked up Guns, Germs, and Steel the last time I was in Cincinnati on a girl date with my bestie, at my old stomping grounds/place of employment, Half-Price Books. I had heard of it for a long time and knew it was “important” and “good.” I’m on a mission to discover and read more quality non-fiction so I thought, “How can I go wrong with a Pulitzer Prize winner that addresses ‘the fate of human societies’? How cool, right?”
Right. Jared Diamond’s book begins with a compelling question: why has human society evolved as it has during the past million years? Why have the white Europeans always been the ones on top, even though humans had a big headstart in Africa? Why didn’t the Aztecs conquer the Spanish, instead of the other way around? And why are Aboriginal Australians still so “primitive?”
So many times in the past, these questions have been given religious, bigoted, ignorant and racist answers: Europeans are God’s chosen people, Native Americans were godless heathens, Africans are sub-human, etc. Diamond bluntly states: that’s rubbish, now let’s really look for answers. (By the way, my thoughts are being narrated in a British accent tonight after one too many episodes of Top Gear with the boy. Forgive the terms like ‘rubbish.’ Diamond is American. He probably does not say ‘rubbish.’)
I’m not going to go giving away all the answers (that’s why you have to read the book yourself, silly), but reading Guns, Germs, and Steel was enlightening, fascinating and nothing if not informative. I think what I liked best about this book was that it doesn’t talk down to you. It’s not light reading; it’s more than 400 pages and much of it is dense, sometimes-approaching academic prose. Diamond keeps a lively pace (again, sorry for the British thing) and he expects his readers to keep up with him. It can be a challenge but it’s definitely not impossible; it just requires a little bit of effort.
I was particularly drawn to this subject after a rather disastrous anthropology class in college. All right, it wasn’t that bad. I think I got a B, but for a straight-A student, that’s a flop. I was — and still am — very interested in the subject of anthropology, and wanted to learn as much as I could. But the class was very hard and not at all what I thought it would be. I thought we’d be reading books like Guns, Germs, and Steel and having deep conversations on the nature of humanity and how modern interpretations of “history” are skewed. Then, I realized that was the work of English class and promptly returned to my major, where I belonged.
But Guns, Germs, and Steel brought me back to that initial excitement over anthropology and the study of human culture — which is also the work of English-studying folk, so not a surprise. Diamond’s book is accessible, interesting and paced well enough, which makes this return to intellectual stimulation so easy.
My only critique — and the reason I gave him an A- — is that the book was a bit redundant at times, particularly toward the end. Diamond essentially lays out a pretty simple theory in answer to his question, and then spends the majority of the book breaking it down. OK, that’s fine. But I found myself wishing he’d stop repeating himself. “Yes, we all know how food production emerged in this part of the world, you already spent 10 pages going over that 200-pages ago.” Tighten it up, buddy.
Other than that, great book. Not for everyone for sure, but I enjoyed it. And I’m proud it only took me a few weeks considering it’s not, like I said, light reading. Now, what is this I’m reading about a National Geographic/PBS film based on Guns, Germs, and Steel? Hmm, sounds like something to check out at my local library. And is this what Jared Diamond looks like? Because he looks like a cool older guy.