Not long ago, as I explained last week, I discovered a perfect novel. Virtually simultaneously, I made another discovery: a perfect nonfiction book. (I’m on a roll!)
So what does a perfect nonfiction book look like? Well, the purpose of nonfiction is to illuminate real-world phenomena. It follows that a perfect nonfiction book would illuminate, incredibly clearly, not just one specialized subset of history or science, but the whole shebang. That’s right—the perfect nonfiction book should reveal all. Everything that ever happened anywhere should be set down in the book!
But to clarify—it should reveal all that is known. Where there are unknowns, the author should be humble in pointing out knowledge deficits. Because while some authors might seem godlike, none really are. An author who won’t admit ignorance is trying to sell you something (and you should run!).
Until this year, most of the very best all-encompassing nonfiction books that I knew of—those that bravely endeavored to explain everything—were written by the great Jared Diamond. Many books explain how Europeans conquered the Americas and elsewhere; Diamond’s books explain why. He delves into the intricacies of human societies and earthly terrains and why events transpired, over the course of history, to produce imbalances of power.
Now comes along another giant, Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and philosopher. His book Sapiens has been getting a lot of buzz in my community lately. It’s not like the book is fresh off the presses; it was first published in Hebrew in 2011, and an English language edition was released in 2014. My understanding is that English speakers in Europe have been enjoying the book for the last five years, and Americans are now finally getting in on the action.
This could be because this book is likely to be controversial, and in several circles. Both conservatives and liberals may find some of their most cherished beliefs wrestled with and left in unrecognizable forms. In fact, there are certain parts of the book that make one feel that the mightiness of the pen is perhaps getting out of hand! I mean, some of this is world-exploding stuff.
But it’s factual. When you start to delve into the true nature of things, you start to realize that the world is a lot stranger than you initially thought. And yet, while it’s strange, it makes perfect sense. Reading this book is like putting pieces together in a giant puzzle. The world starts to make more and more sense—though it may not be the same “common sense” you were raised on.
I’m not going to quote a passage from the book itself in this blog post, for . . . how am I to choose? I penciled a star, exclamation point, or “WOW” on almost every page. Something on almost every page was mind-bendingly fascinating. The book covers an extremely wide range of history, starting when all humans were hunter-gatherers, moving through all the varied changes our species underwent, zooming past the present day, and speculating on the future of our species. So instead of choosing a random passage, I’d like to quote from the little section appended to the end of the book called “A Q&A with Yuval Noah Harari.” The question is as follows:
“What inspired you to write a book about the entire history of humankind? What was your aim?”
And here is his answer:
“When I was a teenager, I became very troubled by the fact that I didn’t understand what was really happening in the world—why things were the way they were, and what the aim and meaning of life were. I asked my parents, my teachers and other grown-ups and, shockingly, it turned out that they too didn’t really understand life. But I was even more amazed by the fact that they seemed not to care about it. They were very worried about money, careers, their mortgage, the political situation, but were completely nonchalant about the fact that they didn’t understand what life was all about. I promised myself that when I grew up, I would not get bogged down in the mundane troubles of daily life, but would do my best to understand the big picture. Writing the book was, in a way, fulfilling this promise that I had made myself.”
I very much identify with this. For me, it happened as a terrified child; but I had a similar experience.
Are you curious about why the world is the way it is?