Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

March 12, 2015 History, non-fiction 10 ★★★★

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindTitle: Sapiens
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Source: Edelweiss
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

Summary: A surprisingly philosophical, funny, and thought-provoking trip through human history.

I recently read a great article that highlights some concerning inaccuracies and illogical arguments in this book. I found this article convincing, so I want share it with you after myself hearing about it from Jenny at Reading the End. I also had some similar problems with the author’s Homo Deus, although I didn’t give the book the same level of scrutiny as this article did.

I think I picked this up because of a comparison to Jared Diamond and that could be why I expected a focus on the early years of humanity’s existence. In actuality, the author spends approximately equal time on the years before and after each of three major revolutions in human thought: the agricultural, cognitive, and scientific revolutions. I was also surprised by how philosophical this book was. Instead of simply relating a factual history of humanity, the author asks tough questions, discussing the foundations of current belief systems and wondering whether or not each of the major revolutions he discusses really made people happier.

In a final surprise when I added this review to my book-tracking spreadsheet, I discovered that this was the first work of translated nonfiction I’ve read (yay!). I must offer some serious kudos to the author and the translator (perhaps one and the same? I can’t find any translator listed) for keeping a sense of humor alive through the translation. There were many parts of this book that were quirky or funny in a way that made me smile and made this book a pleasure to read. I suspect that’s something that is very hard to achieve across a language barrier. The fun facts in this book also contributed to my enjoyment and I’d recommend it to my many readers who share my love of the an interesting bit of trivia.

Despite my surprise at the philosophical tone of the book, it was largely something I enjoyed. The author made me question basic assumptions, such as whether or not capitalism should be considered a religion and whether or not the agricultural revolution was good for the individual. On occasion, I did feel as though the author went out of his way to give traditional religions a hard time. Even as someone who is not religious, the jabs at religion bothered me when they didn’t contribute something useful to the book. However, overall, I felt like the author was very evenhanded in his treatment of some difficult questions. Even when I thought his personal opinion was clear, he usually gave the other side a fair shake.

This book was something completely different. Although it does share the scope of its questions with Jared Diamond’s work, it strays more into the philosophical and more into the modern era. This could be a good or a bad thing, depending on the reader and their expectations. This was one of the few times when I enjoyed a book being very different from what I expected. I liked the way it made me question things that seem obvious and wasn’t offended by the author’s lack of reverence and willingness to dissect all aspects of our culture. If you like Jared Diamond’s books, are interested in the very early history of humanity, or just want to read something thought-provoking, I’d highly recommend this. If you are religious, I’m not sure this will be your cup of tea.

Are you typically bothered by author’s inserting their personal opinions into non-memoir nonfiction? Even if they agree with you?

10 Responses to “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”

  1. Jancee @ Jancee Reads

    As long as they state clearly that they are writing an opinion, I’ll generally be okay with it. If they just make wild statements that I take as opinions because nothing backs it up, I might get a little upset. It’s all based on the context.

    • DoingDewey

      I agree, that makes a big difference! I can be bothered by opinions even if it’s obvious that’s what they are if I feel like an author should be writing about a topic more objectively, but I can also enjoy getting an author’s perspective based on their research.

  2. Leah @ Books Speak Volumes

    I loved this book for all the reasons you wrote about! It’s so much more than a this-happened-and-then-this-happened history, and I loved that he asked big questions and inserted a touch of humor.

  3. Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf

    Yes! In non-memoir nonfiction, it definitely bothers me when it feels like a jab OR an agenda (even one I agree with, though admittedly, that will bother me less so). It’s not a deal-breaker unless it’s overwhelming in some way (too many instances, especially nasty/uncalled for, etc.).

    • DoingDewey

      I feel the same way. It surprises me that I’m so bothered by this even when I agree with the author’s perspective, but it does often just feel unnecessarily nasty to me.

  4. Amanda

    Like others, it only bothers me if it feels like an agenda. I think it’s really hard to write anything without your opinions showing at least a tiny bit, but when it feels agenda-like (unless the book has a stated agenda, so I know), then it bothers me.

    Nice review!

    • DoingDewey

      That’s true! Perfect objectivity is unrealistic and not something I’d necessarily want. It could be very boring! I’m also bothered when it feels as though the author as an agenda though. Especially in science writing, less so in other nonfiction, I really want an author to just present the fact.

  5. Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a work of translated nonfiction… maybe a memoir, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head. That’s such an odd gap! I would like to look for this one, it sounds really interesting.

    • DoingDewey

      I hadn’t read any translated nonfiction before either, which makes me wonder if it’s a rare thing. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more.

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