Wednesday, June 19, 2013

review: guns, germs and steel

Rarely do I let a good book languish on my shelves for long, waiting to be read. I'm more than a little bit embarrassed to say that with Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel that's exactly what happened. The first year Bunny and I started dating (a good five years ago) he lent me his copy of Guns, Germs and Steel and said I should read it and that it was one of the best books he'd ever read. I only picked it up a few months ago and got around to reading it, I'm sad to say.

Which is strange, because while we don't share entirely the same taste our interests do intersect. We both adore science fiction, we're both down for a good biography. I'm not so much into his outdoorsy and instructional woodworking books, he's not into my historical and philosophy. Maybe it's that I hadn't quite gotten over the fact that he claimed Absurdistan (by Gary Shteyngart) was the best book he's ever read, and that while it wasn't terrible it certainly didn't live up to "best book ever" in my mind. But I wasn't into the premise of Guns, Germs and Steel either.

There's a reason this book is a New York Times bestseller, and it's one of the most fulfilling pieces of nonfiction that I have read in ages. The style is very academic, restating the same arguments in different contexts and showing how that main premise works time and again in various different contexts. At the same time, the writing is conversational and accessible, and Diamond keeps in mind that this is a general publication and not created for subject experts.

Most of all it's fascinating. What, really, are the factors that helped decide how resources and power is divided in the modern world, and why development happens at different rates in different societies. It doesn't solve all the mysteries (does anything?) and I don't know if the same arguments will continue to affect the division of power in the next ten thousand years of human history (if we have that long) but I feel like I've learned a lot about the structure and history of our world.

I won't spoil anything, really, if I tell you that much of the world's power structure comes down to who had first access to guns, germs and steel. Diamond delves deeper, though, examining the factors that contributed to the development of those technologies and the spread of them across the world.

If you're a non fiction fan, and in the mood for socio-political writings this really should be the next book on your to read list, if you haven't read it already. My only regret? That I didn't read it sooner.

6 comments:

  1. Yes, this is one of the best books I have ever read, it was even encouraged in one of our classes (I think agriculture). It is really enlightening. He wrote a second book (Collapse, on why civilizations fall, and why) and I believe a new one has just been released. Mark still has to read it, but I think he will really enjoy it, he is really interested in politics, history, foreign affairs...

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    1. I've heard mixed reviews about Collapse, but it sounds fascinating and I'm looking forward to picking it up.

      This has to be the most talked about book I'd ever read. I gave a five word description of it once at work and suddenly the whole lunch room was talking about how great it was.

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  2. I listened to Guns, Germs and Steel while driving through Colorado and California. While I agree that the book has fascinating content and is well-written, I think the constant restating of the main argument did not work as well in audio form. Maybe it's just because I retain info well when I hear it, but I certainly developed a 'feeling' for his structure to a point where I could predict what he'd argue next and how he would work towards the conclusion of a chapter.

    Still, it provides good insights into the state of the world, and I like how its arguments align with my personal viewpoints :P I'd definitely consider listening to (or reading) Collapse as well.

    If you're into history, have you ever tried any podcasts by Dan Carlin? He has a series called 'Hardcore History', where he discusses events in a way that's cohesive and accessible, while still doing justice to their complexity. I particularly enjoyed his series on the Khans (you know, Genghis), but I have also heard good things about his series on the fall of the Roman Empire and the Battle of Stalingrad. He also has a couple of one-off episodes. One was about the treatment of children through the ages, which I thought was deeply fascinating.

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    1. I could definitely see where restating the argument wouldn't work in audio form. I found it really comforting, in that it reminded me how we were asked to structure our essays back when I was an undergrad but like you I found after the first five chapters or so, I could identify the argument before it was made and it was just the details to fill in. Probably the structure could have been loosened to take into account his target audience.

      I've never really gotten into podcasts, somehow. Spoken word just can't keep my attention (I'm flighty) but those ones sound interesting. Next time I'm loading up my iPod I'll keep it in mind.

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  3. I read this book as an undergrad and have always been a fan of his work and writing. When my husband was at UPenn, Diamond spoke to his class, so I tagged along and it was one of the most inspiring and simultaneously entertaining lectures I've ever attended.

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    1. Oh wow, seeing Diamond speak must have been interesting. Do you remember the topic of his lecture?

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