Monday, April 28, 2014

Books before I'm 30: Guns, Germs and Steel

Book two is a nonfiction book recommended to me by Sophie Ellis. This is a book I'd heard a bit about before, so was eager to catch up with.

I don't read a great deal of nonfiction. Its not that I hate non-fiction or find it dull, just that my primary enjoyment in reading tends to be in finding well told stories. That said, I do enjoy a good piece of non-fiction. Probably the last I read was the Selfish Gene, by the much less admired than he used to be Richard Dawkins. I would still recommend it, as it is purely Dawkin's writing on evolution, which is generally great.

This book shares some of the characteristics of the Selfish Gene, in that while it is a work of history, it is instead an argument for why the broad scope of history is as it is. Why were the Americas, Australia and Sub-Saharan Africa invaded by Europe, and not the other way round? Was it to do with the people, or something to do with the environment they inhabited?

Diamond constructs a careful theory with several points. As the title indicates, nations with guns germs and steel tend to triumph, where guns and steel represent a technological advantage, while germs cleared out some areas (particular the Americas) of their inhabitants, and sometimes made empires collapse. He argues that Eurasia (which he includes North Africa in, as it has a similar climate) not only has the largest land mass, but following from that the greatest number of domestable plants and animals. The former give rise to societies, while the latter gives rise to the germs that were transmitted from Europeans to Americans.

Its a well and carefully argued piece. It suffers slightly from the fact that the evidence there exists is somewhat sparse. For instance, his argument that there are less domestable plants in the US essentially hinges on the fact that since Europeans settled there, very few have been domesticated. He can hardly point to an exhaustive survey of plants and there ability to be domesticated on either continents, as it does not exist! That said, this is how science progresses. Someone makes a theory based on the evidence available to it, and then others can search for more evidence to either strengthen or falsify that theory. As such, this is a great and inspiring book, which presents a clear way to think about the broad scope of human history.

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Books before I'm 30: Stoner by John Williams

The project begins!

First book: Stoner, bought for me by my parents as a birthday present.

Stoner is a funny sort of book, in that it was published in 1965 to no particular acclaim but found fame rather randomly in 2013. Its not the sort of book that would seem to be a sleeper hit. It tells the tale of a somewhat unremarkable academic's life, being set (at least initially) pre-world war one, and following his failures and successes.

I can see why a lot of people like the book. Its a well told story, and easy enough to read. It rarely slows done or feels turgid, and the main character is interesting enough. The themes that it hits on: the search for meaning, curating happiness in adverse conditions, loss and hope, are interesting enough. Sadly though, I found myself not enjoying most of the book.

The unfortunate part for me is the blamelesness with which Will Stoner, our main character, acts. He always acts with the utmost virtue. Even when he conducts an affair the narrative does its best to imply that it is not a bad thing he is doing, and even seems to condemn his wife when she injects a cruel jibe about his lover.

Ah yes, his wife. Edith is my main problem with this book, although I do have another. Edith is someone he meets at a party and find himself in love with, despite having little in common with her, and her seeming disinterest. In fact its never quite explained why Edith chooses to marry him in the first place, as she seems to have no affection for him, even though the book takes pains to point out why Edith's responses to Bill's sexual advances are ones of disgust. Edith, it seems, is a creature of spite and hatred, but not in a deliberate way. Her many deeply unpleasant actions towards Stoner throughout the book are apparently not her fault: she makes no deliberate move in her endless campaign of making Stoner's life miserable. Stoner, other than perhaps a lack of self awareness, is apparently not guilty of ever acting poorly towards his wife. Her hatred of him appears to spring up ex nihilo to make Stoner's life that bit worse.

In fact Stoner seems to spend his life dealing with people who hate him for no reason at all. His academic dispute, which take up a large portion of the latter half of the book, come from a character acting in a totally unreasonable way, and Stoner acting in an utterly, completely moral one. The sum of this was to make me frustrated with the one sided portrayal of Stoner against the world, making me wonder if the author wasn't working out his personal bugbear with the world.

I didn't hate this book the way I hated some (I'm glaring at you, the Lovely Bones), but I sadly cannot recommend it.

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