January 19, 2013
Jared Diamond: By the Book
Published: January 17, 2013
The author of “The World Until Yesterday” says that if he had to recommend one book of geography to children, he would suggest his own “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”
What book is on your night stand now?
Sabine Kuegler, “Child of the Jungle.” This unique book is the autobiography of the daughter of a German missionary linguist couple, who moved when she was a child to live with a Fayu clan in a remote area of swamp forest in Indonesian New Guinea. The Fayu experienced first contact with outsiders under terrifying conditions, while I was working in the area in 1979.
In the Fayu village while Sabine was growing up there, the only non-Fayu were Sabine, her parents and her two siblings. Sabine grew up speaking Fayu (as well as German, Indonesian and English), with all of her playmates Fayu children, and learning to think and act like a Fayu. At the age of 17 her parents sent her back to Europe to attend boarding school.
The result for Sabine was an extreme case of culture shock. This book approximates an account of Western society through the eyes of a New Guinean. Europe was as much of a shock to Sabine as the New Guinea jungle is to a Westerner. Through Sabine’s words, we experience what it is like to encounter traffic lights, trains and strangers for the first time. By Fayu standards, the variety of chocolates in Europe is wonderful, but the way that Europeans treat each other is not wonderful. This book gives a view of Western life from a fresh perspective shared by no Westerner.
What was the last truly great book you read?
Primo Levi, “If This Is a Man” (original, “Se Questo È un Uomo,” 1947). At one level, Levi’s book is about how as a young Italian Jewish chemist joining the resistance during World War II, he was captured, sent to Auschwitz, and survived. At another level, the book is about our everyday life issues, magnified: the life-and-death consequences of chance, the problem of evil, the impossibility of separating one’s moral code from surrounding circumstances, and the difficulties of maintaining one’s sanity and humanness in the presence of injustice and bad people.
Levi dealt with these issues and was lucky, with the result that he survived Auschwitz and went on to become one of the greatest authors (both of nonfiction and fiction) of postwar Italy. But he survived at a price. One of the prices, the loss of his religious beliefs, he summarized as follows: “I must say that the experience of Auschwitz for me was such as to sweep away any remnants of the religious education that I had had. . . . Auschwitz existed, therefore God cannot exist. I find no solution to that dilemma. I seek a solution, but I don’t find it.”
If you had to come up with your own Best of 2012 list, what book would be at the top?
There were so many good books in 2012 that rather than attempt to identify the best of them, I’ll mention here one that is among the best and that deserves more attention than it has received. It’s Howard Steven Friedman, “The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America’s Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing.” Despite the subtitle, this book is not just another one of hundreds of books making recommendations about what the U.S. should be doing. Instead, Friedman compares the United States with 13 other rich countries in five vital measures of individual and national security: health, safety, education, democracy and equality.
Friedman explains clearly and convincingly, writes engagingly and laces his text with personal examples. Contrary to what many Americans think, the U.S. does not lead the world by these measures. Friedman’s recommendations are specific and feasible. I’m glad that I resisted my instinct of dismissing the book when I first saw its cover: it’s thought-provoking, and good reading.
What’s your favorite genre? Any guilty pleasures?
The genre in which I do most of my leisure reading (i.e., reading not targeted for researching my own next book) is Italian literature. My original motive was to practice my grasp on the Italian language, which I took up at age 61. But it turns out that Italy has been blessed with some of the world’s great writers, from Dante, Boccaccio and Machiavelli in the past to several modern authors whom I mention here in answers to other questions.
If you could require the President to read one book, what would it be?
It would be Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince.” Machiavelli is frequently dismissed today as an amoral cynic who supposedly considered the end to justify the means. In fact, Machiavelli is a crystal-clear realist who understands the limits and uses of power. Fundamental to his thinking is the distinction he draws between the concepts expressed in Italian as virtù and fortuna. These don’t mean “virtue” and “fortune.”
Instead, virtù refers to the sphere in which a statesman can influence his world by his own actions, contrasted with fortuna, meaning the role of chance beyond a statesman’s control. But Machiavelli makes clear, in a wonderful metaphor contrasting an uncontrollable flood with protective measures that can be taken in anticipation of a flood, that we are not helpless at the hands of bad luck. Among a statesman’s tasks is to anticipate what might go wrong, and to plan for it. Every president (and all of us non-politicians as well) should read Machiavelli and incorporate his thinking.
What were your favorite books as a child? Did you have a favorite character or hero?
Two books stand out. One is “The Complete Sherlock Holmes”: all 1,122 pages, containing four novels and 56 short stories. I read them first as a child and have reread them about every 10 years since then, including reading them to my own sons when they were children.
The other book is Thoreau’s “Walden,” which I read once when I was young, and which was the single book that has most influenced me. Thoreau’s message that I took away was: Be honest with yourself, think clearly, decide what is most important and do it regardless of what other people think. Reading Thoreau felt like standing in dazzlingly bright light.
What’s the best book for a parent to buy for a child interested in learning more about geography and the relationship between geography and society?
I believe that I’m being realistic, not egotistical or self-promoting, when I answer: my own book “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” The book explains the long-term effects of geography — especially continental differences in wild plant and animal species available for domestication, and in shapes, areas and isolations — in molding the different histories of the peoples native to the different continents.
While I wrote the book for adults, to my surprise it has been frequently adopted in schools. I discovered this when one day my twin sons, then in seventh grade, came home from school angry at me. They explained, “Daddy, our class has been assigned a chapter of your book to read, and the teacher will invite you in to discuss your book, and we haven’t read your book yet, but we are sure that it is a bad book.”
When I did receive the teacher’s invitation and arrived at the class, my sons were seated in the back row, with their gazes averted in embarrassment and disgust. But my sons warmed up when they saw that their classmates hadn’t hated but had enjoyed my book. By the end of the class, my sons were smiling. Since then, they have been among my most devoted defenders, and they erupt in indignation if they hear any of my books criticized. Since that visit to my sons’ school, I’ve had many school visits and invitations, and letters daily from schoolchildren of all ages who have been stimulated by my books.
What was the last book that made you cry? The last book that made you laugh?
The answers to both of those questions are: the same book or series of books. It’s the series of Don Camillo stories, by the modern Italian author Giovanni Guareschi, collected in three volumes. The stories are set in a small Italian town, and involve three protagonists: the local priest Don Camillo; the mayor Peppone; and the church’s Christ statue, which Don Camillo consults regularly for advice and which answers. Don Camillo and Peppone clash constantly in words and occasionally with their fists. But the two of them are joined by a common sense of humanity. The Don Camillo stories range from gut-wrenchingly tragic to hilarious. Whenever I start the next story in Guareschi’s collection, I never know in advance whether it will make me cry or laugh.
What’s the best love story you’ve ever read?
Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” — even though the love goes sour and the book has a sad ending.
Name a book you just couldn’t finish.
Modern Italy’s leading woman author is Dacia Maraini. She has written many wonderful, realistic, emotionally rich novels and short stories, all of which I have enjoyed — with one exception. Her book “Woman at War” (“Donna in Guerra”) describes unpleasant protagonists experiencing unpleasant events and relationships. Precisely because Dacia Maraini’s writing is so convincing, by Page 97 I couldn’t stand to submerge myself any longer in that unpleasantness, and I stopped reading.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
My choice would be the classical Greek historian Thucydides, who devoted the latter part of his life to a book detailing the history of the long series of wars between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century B.C. His book is considered to have laid the foundations of the discipline of history. I read Thucydides every decade or so, about as often as I read “Sherlock Holmes.”
The reasons why Thucydides is still widely read today, over 2,400 years after he lived, are that his insights into politics and war are universal and still relevant; his moral and psychological reflections on war and history are profound; and his accounts of debates and battles are thrilling. If I met him, I would be curious to discover whether he was really as devoid of humor as is his book.
In his entire book there is not a single sentence that could be considered remotely humorous, no less a joke. Second, I would want to ask him how he managed to write such a calm and dispassionate account of a passionate and vicious war, when he himself served as an Athenian general but was fired and exiled after a defeat, and when he loved and admired one of the two sides (the Athenians). Finally, I would ask him the same question that all subsequent historians have wondered: How close to the original does he think are his verbatim accounts of lengthy speeches at whose delivery he was not present?
What are you planning to read next?
I am going to reread Thucydides.
A version of this article appeared in print on January 20, 2013, on page BR8 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Jared Diamond. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/books/review/jared-diamond-by-the-book.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&ref=books