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Contestants, The Clock Will Begin When The Last Glacier Recedes. Ready? Go!

February 11, 2009 at 4:20 am

A couple of Saturdays ago, around 5 in the morning, I finished reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.  I received the book as a gift this past Christmas (thanks, Daniel), and though I'd wanted to read the book ever since hearing about it almost 10 years ago, I never managed to get around to it until somebody almost literally put a copy in my hands.  (The timing worked out fairly well, too, since thanks to my new lifestyle as a bus commuter, I have more time for pleasure reading than previously.)

Anyway.  Wow.  If -- like me -- you've been meaning to read GGS but have been putting it off for one reason or another, don't.  It's worth it.  But, since the book came out in the late 90s, you're probably 10 years ahead of me.  (And hey, while we're on the subject, don't tell me how The Sixth Sense ends.)

I'm not the quickest reader in the world, and the subject matter was unfamiliar to me, so working my way through GGS took longer than it would have for other books of comparable size.  But I wanted to understand what I was reading.  I took my time.  Occasionally sounding out the big words as I went along. 

The effort was worth it.   I know I didn't absorb all of it, but I think I picked up the gist of Diamond's thesis, and might have learned a thing or two along the way. The book examines human societies around the world in an attempt to answer the question, "Why did white Europeans colonize and conquer so much of the world and so many different peoples, rather than being colonized and conquered by others?"  (Well, I'm paraphrasing to an ugly degree.  But that's the basic idea.)  Diamond uses the entire book as an elegant argument against the inherent superiority or inferiority of any particular cultural group.  Instead, he argues that the real reasons for this phenomenon can be traced back to the end of the last ice age, and that they hinge on questions of geography and the distribution of domesticable plants and animals.  Along the way, he draws an impressive amount of real-world data together to support his thesis.  

Like any work of its kind, it isn't perfect.  No doubt the weaknesses and criticisms range beyond what I was able to pick out.  I'm sure the work has its detractors.  But at the very least, it's thought-provoking, informative, and surprisingly readable for the layperson. 

Huh.  I see the book was translated into a PBS miniseries in 2005.  I wonder if I can get it on DVD.  Then I'd be only 4 years behind the curve.

If I ever try my hand at a big, fat, second-world fantasy, I think I'll use GGS as the template for my worldbuilding.  Maybe I'll get around to reading Collapse, too, and add it to the mix.  In fact, I find my thoughts keep returning to this book -- it's rattling around in the back of my head, as most story ideas do for me. 

Reminder: Free copies of C. C. Finlay's excellent new novel, The Patriot Witch, can be downloaded at his website.  Please read my blog post for details.


Palmer T February 18, 2009 at 3:24 am
Hey, Ian, in the Sixth Sense -- the butler did it. Har, har. In your reading list, add The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Another sobering look at what us humans have and/or are doing.
Ian February 19, 2009 at 2:47 am
Thanks for the book recommendation, Mr. P. Towndrow. I've heard that's a good one-- I'll add it to the list. As for the Sixth Sense, I'd heard that the ending is kind of anticlimactic after the giant ape falls off the Empire State Building.
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