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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Summer Reading Challenge

The Reading Challenge for summer is to read a book that won a Pulitzer Prize. I chose:

****½ Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. Non-fiction.

It took me quite a while to settle on a book for this challenge--there's obviously a huge variety. But I don't read a lot of nonfiction, and lately I've been very interested in sociology, social history, that sort of thing, so this one was right up my alley.

Pulling together research from a wide variety of fields, Diamond sets out to answer the question of why civilization as we know it developed and flourished in some parts of the world, while other areas were left behind.

The gist: it's all about the geography. In order for civilization to develop, people have to be living in large groups, with food plentiful enough so that some people can be spared from the business of survival to specialize in organization and crafts. In order for that to happen, they must have agriculture and livestock. In order to have agriculture and livestock, they must have either native animals that are domesticable or trading opportunities to obtain them. In other words, it all comes down to where they started from.

I admit to a little hesitation before I chose this book. I read through several reviews, and quite a few reviewers claimed it promoted the concept of racial superiority, and I really didn't want to end up reading several hundred pages of racist propaganda. Still, the majority of the reviews were positive, and there were also quite a few negative reviews complaining that it overlooked the racial factors, so I was intrigued enough by the question to give it a try.

Guns, Germs, and Steel is decidedly not racist propaganda. Diamond bends over backward to ensure that it's not, and even raises the very intriguing question of who's actually smarter--the westerner with the comfortable lifestyle or the jungle native who has to depend on his own knowledge and judgment for survival.

What I enjoyed most about the book was how thorough it was, putting together... well, I was going to say all the pieces of the puzzle, but when it comes to human history, that's just not possible--but enough of the puzzle to see the big picture, rather than just the small segments you get by focusing on a single discipline. It's not enough to describe, for example, how the development of language affected civilization--it's put into perspective along with all the other developments happening at the same time.


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I read this one in college and remember liking it. I don't read much non-fiction, either, but would like to read more.
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