Who Are We? And What Are We Becoming?

Sapiens

If you want some help thinking about the answers to those questions, I highly recommend you read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

This book is brilliant! It’s packed with information (much of it new to me) but written in a witty, stimulating and totally accessible style. The whole time I was reading it I kept wishing I could sit in on one of Harari’s lectures!

One of my favourite sections comes early in the book (though you should absolutely read the whole thing). It’s Chapter Two: The Tree of Knowledge, in which Harari discusses the impact of language (for the purpose of “gossiping” about each other!) on our development as a species and explores the idea that we are bound together in our various groups (locally and globally) by our “collective imaginations” — our shared beliefs in myths and stories (or, as described in academia, ‘fictions’, ‘social constructs’ and ‘imagined realities’).

“Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persits, the imagined reality exerts force in the world. […] Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited liability companies. Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights. […]

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As times went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.”

Another favourite section is Chapter Seven: Memory Overload, which explores the development of written systems of communication. Read it to find out why Harari says…

“Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master.”

Sapiens is broad in its coverage (mathematics, anthropology, religion, psychology, evolution, geography, happiness and science, are just a few of the topics covered), and sweeping in many of its assessments, but that’s all it can be if it is to cover the whole history of humankind. It’s a well written, provocative and thoroughly engaging introduction to the study of human history. While it may not be the full meal, there is more than enough food for thought in this fascinating book to keep you from feeling a single hunger pang!

Have you read it? What do you think?

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A Little Life

Hana Yanagihara’s A Little Life has been described as the story of four friends (Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB), but it’s actually one man’s story: Jude’s story. A story of love, friendship, loyalty and… disturbing, relentless, unsparing suffering often rendered in such graphic detail that I found myself choking up at some points and at others questioning what kind of literary sadist Yanagihara had to be in order to write it.

Engrossed at times and repulsed at others, I both loved and hated this novel. The story was as devastating as it was compelling with parts of it beautifully, sensitively written and others so overwritten and overwrought that I swear I heard a Greek chorus wailing behind me as I read.

This is not a story for the faint of heart or for anyone working through concerns related to emotional, physical and or sexual abuse. It’s a searing account of how wounds inflicted in childhood and left untreated can turn into equally horrific self-abuse: Jude’s rage is turned inward and then written all over his own body. Having said that, the descriptions of the abuse don’t feel gratuitous or sensationalist despite their graphic nature. And, every time you think you cannot take anymore, Yanagihara flashes forward (or backward) to a scene of tender exchange between Jude and one of the other characters (Willem, in particular) that provides some beautiful, moving relief.

The oft-proclaimed love and loyalty of Jude’s friends and adopted family are frequently tested throughout the novel, and one of the things I kept asking (sometimes out loud!) was why they were all so willing to go along with Jude’s refusal to accept psychiatric treatment. The conclusion I came to was that this physically and emotionally broken man was the canvas on which they were able to paint their best visions of themselves, and they couldn’t afford to lose him. They were all, subconsciously, to one degree or another, invested in him remaining broken.

At 700+ pages, there were a host of other questions I had about the characters and events in A Little Life. I may try writing a longer piece about it at a later date but, for now, I’m offering this little review.

Have you read it? What questions did you have?

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