Sapiens by Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari is a book that can make a rare claim to being a blockbuster read in a time when reading books is in sharp decline. Since its publication in English in 2014 it can often be spotted in living room bookshelves and hostel sunbeds the world over, having been translated into over 60 languages and selling more than 12 million copies. The basis for its popularity is likely because the subject of the book – the full history of mankind – is of universal interest to pretty much anyone. At a time when it seems like the wheels of change in our modern world are difficult to keep pace with, expansive books such as this provide a grounding and a sense of perspective which are difficult to get from anywhere else.
Despite the very clear outline of what the book is about, starting out I wasn’t initially sure how Harari would go about tackling such an enormous timeline in a single book. How can you possibly organise so many different events, so many parallel stories in a way that’s not only coherent but also says something all on its own? It’s straightforward enough to describe things that have happened as is, but its an altogether more difficult task to sew loosely connected developments together to tell a full story in an engaging style. Above all, with so much ground to cover and so comparatively few pages with which to cover it, the ability to curate with confidence – cutting out the noise and selecting the parts that really matter – is of crucial importance.
Harari manages to sail over many of these obstacles with ease, carried forward by his truly impressive knowledge of world history. The opening chapters of the book set out the stall of Harari’s approach, where instead of focussing on events in a linear fashion he chooses to centre around the arrival of belief systems, inventions, new political structures and cultural changes. I think what makes the book really lively is his willingness to draw on a whole manner of examples, from pop culture to evolutionary biology, in order to explain to the reader the importance of each of humanity’s steps up the staircase of progress. The book rarely gets bogged down in technicalities, and neither does it shy away from detail where its needed either.
Whether he’s covering the domestication of animals and plants or waxing lyrical about the importance of money, Harari earns and maintains your attention by regularly drawing up fictional analogies that cast away any difficulties you might have understanding his point. Perhaps the most beautiful insight of all that you carry away from this book is a newfound appreciation for the lives of people in the distant past: their worries, preoccupations and the way they saw the world. Harari has a real talent for melting away the frost of time and allowing you to jump into the shoes of someone living through a cultural change of the past.
Though I’m not too familiar with them, I’m aware that the book is not without its criticisms. There are quite a few academics that feel that Harari exaggerates at points, allows his political views to colour some of what he says and makes leaps in his argument that are too ambitious or straight up wrong. Whilst some of these accusations probably have some truth to them I’m sure most readers will be able to see this book for what it is – which is a very broad overview of history, mostly from a Western perspective. It’s going to get things wrong, miss things out and definitely reflect the personal views of its author; most readers should be able to take it with the pinch or two of salt necessary to get the most of it without taking it as gospel.
This book was the first of my summer reads, and whilst I’m not a massive geek for ancient history it was a fascinating book jam-packed full of unique insights on science, culture and politics. Everything that we take for granted nowadays had to be built from the ground up, and the modern world today represents thousands of years of accumulated struggle, death and in the case of European empires untold levels of violent oppression. As Harari is very keen to point out history is hardly on a predetermined path. When you begin to understand it as a sequence of toss ups, accidents and fortunes both good and bad, and as a process that doesn’t necessarily point towards a happy ending it leaves an indelible mark on how you view the present day. Whether that change in perspective is reassuring or plainly terrifying is, ultimately, down to you.
Words by Charlie Forbes
You can buy Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari from an independent bookseller here (Paperback, £10.22).
Cover photo by Mariano / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)