Historian Yuval Noah Harari first published Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind in Hebrew in 2011. It went on to be translated in more than 30 countries to international acclaim and first appeared in English in 2014. The book has climbed the bestseller lists since. From the Stone Age to modern day, Sapiens explains how modern humans have come to dominate our environment through our unique ability to collaborate. We can organize flexibly around imaginary concepts, like nations, gods, and money.
Harari’s new book, Homo Deus, picks up where Sapiens left off and projects forward to imagine what we might become. In addition to nations, gods, and money, the self is also an imaginary concept. As self-made gods, what new world should we create? In an age where making sense of the world feels something like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose, Harari has a unique ability to construct a captivating narrative while drawing from many disciplines. Those who have read Sapiens may feel that some of the ideas in the second part of Homo Deus are familiar, but I urge you not to skip forward. The review of core ideas, like the value of money and humanism, are a necessary set up for the thrilling third part of the book.
And it’s this third part of Homo Deus, where Harari plays a sort of proviso-prophet, that is especially fascinating. Malcolm Gladwell-style criticism will undoubtedly be leveled at a historian who has dared to pluck examples from philosophy, biology, psychology, and other disciplines in order to peer into the future. But much like Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast, the point of Homo Deus is not to make predictions, but to loosen the grip of our past so that we can ask better questions and be more imaginative about the future. This is a brave book for a brave new world.
Should you read Homo Deus? I did and it changed my life in a number of ways. Here are the top five:
5) I Feel Assured My History Degree Was Not a Waste of Time
Instead of shrugging when my capitalist uncle asks, again, why I bothered to study history, I will tell him this: History can liberate us from the past. If you want people to gain rights or build equality in the world, Harari makes the case that the first step is to retell the history. The new story will explain that, “our present situation is neither natural nor eternal.” Our lives become the stories we decide to tell ourselves. History majors may yet inherit the earth.
4) I Understand Why I Went Through the Torture of Childbirth, Nearly Died, and Then Willingly Had Sex and Did It All Over Again
Before the pain became so excruciating that I couldn’t think, I spent much of my second labor wondering, why? If my life is a story that I tell myself, then shouldn’t the pain I experienced during my first labor stop me from doing this again? Within a larger conversation about how we think and make decisions, Harari explains the peak-end rule. The narrating self, the one that tells the story, has a tendency to remember the most painful moment and the end moment, rather than a detailed play-by-play of what actually happened. Some part of myself did hold a memory of the pain, but I’d since allowed my love of my baby to override the more accurate memories.
This peak-end rule also goes some way to explain multiple occurrences of teething and toddlers in my life. No need to re-read Gone Girl, I am my own unreliable narrator.
3) When I Next Get in Trouble, I Will Say My Algorithm Made Me Do It
When I started this article, I stole two squares from my cousin’s chocolate bar. At the time of writing, I’ve since circled back for two more. Do I have evil in my soul? Why does my mind crave chocolate? Have I evolved in a way that makes chocolate essential to my being? Perhaps my cousin will accept one of these reasons as an excuse. Or, I could tell her that I am an avalanche of electric signals fired by billions of neurons that stimulate glands to secrete hormones and make my muscles contract in such a way that the chocolate found its way to my mouth.
Rather than a holistic chocolate stealing entity, I am a combination of smaller parts that have come together and evolved gradually. These parts include a wad of tissue in my head that I call my brain. As a whole, my organism works like any other algorithm. Put an input, like a search query, into Google’s algorithm and you will arrive at a given result depending on how the search engine functions that day. Put chocolate in the house and you may find that a chain of electric signals and secretions work the two squares through my algorithm, which results in the chocolate ceasing to exist in its previous form.
2) I Can Now Articulate Another Thing That Has Been Bugging Me About the U.S. Election
Since reading Homo Deus, I am no longer am a practicing devotee of liberalism.
Many of us might agree that Donald Trump talks nonsense and he has gained popularity by pointing out that his opponents don’t make any sense either. There are times when none of it feels rational. Regardless of what side you are on, our current political imagination is dominated by liberalism. As we don’t believe in a god or politician who is all-knowing, we believe that the best way to find truth and the best leader is at the level of the individual. Our new authority, a clear and consistent inner voice, guides our most important decisions.
Or does it? I don’t need to do much self-reflection to realize that my inner voice is often conflicted and inconsistent. I dredge up old memories and inflate their importance to justify my current decisions. I say I believe one thing and then do another. So do the candidates.
At the core of liberalism is a belief that we are individuals with defined senses of self. But for all our advances in science, we have never found any evidence of a “self.” Put Trump’s policies under a microscope and all you will find is a chain reaction of biochemical events. At its core, liberalism is an act of faith. In order to believe in it, you need to put rational thought aside, which astutely describes what has been bugging me.
1) I Will Kick Ass When I Next Play Settlers of Catan
I’m not going to tell you the winning strategy that Harari lays out for Settlers of Catan, but I am convinced that it will give me a competitive edge. But I have a problem. If you read the book, we might both start using the same strategy, which will significantly lessen my advantage. A third player might also read the book and know both our tactics in advance. Once Harari’s book is widely read, all my advantage is lost.
As we live in a data driven world, my best bet might be to build an app that can crunch the strategies and variables and make a recommendation for my next best move. If the app becomes widely used, I can go on to build a networked algorithm that can collect information and become all knowing about the strategies used in Settlers of Catan. With my one winning strategy, I will become just one point of input, whereas my algorithm’s power to win, with data collected from a broad range of inputs, will quickly become a far superior player. At that point, do I cease to be the player and become the one who is played?
If I sound like a character who from the pages of a Jeff VanderMeer novel, it’s for good reason. We currently use technology to overcome our limitations, but its capabilities may contain the seeds of our irrelevance or downfall.
In the more immediate future, however, I plan to kick ass at Settlers of Catan.
Thinking back on this year, I’m surprised to find that the books that meant the most to me were nonfiction. I read a lot fiction this year, and much of it was excellent and memorable, but when friends asked for recommendations, I found myself championing The Sixth Extinction and Sapiens, two books of natural history that describe, with precise calm, the dramatic effect our species has had on every other species on the planet. I stand by those recommendations, but I’d like to use this space to single out three memoirs that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, and which I know I will return to again. I will list them in the order that I read them.
The Odd Woman and the City, by Vivian Gornick
I read a galley of this book in February. When I first started reading it, I thought: This is the book I’ve been waiting for. And then I thought: I should review it. And then: No, I love it too much.
I didn’t want to review this book because it felt like a friend — or maybe it’s better to say that it felt like a conversation with a friend. This memoir is actually about friendship and conversation; about the ways that a long-term friendship is a conversation that doesn’t really end, it just has long pauses. As Gornick writes of her decades-long friendship with Leonard, the gay man who is her counterpart: “What we are, in fact, is a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives, meeting up from time to time at the outer limit to give each other border reports.”
Gornick’s book is also about what it’s like to be an unmarried woman, to live outside the borders of family life. It’s about what it feels like to be lonely, and what it feels like to be free. It’s about what it feels like to change your mind, about the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth that comes after you’ve come of age, and even after you’ve “come into your own.” Finally, it’s about living in New York City. You would think that’s a topic that’s been done to death, but I’ve read dozens of NYC memoirs and novels and I’ve never read one that captures what it actually feels like to live in this city for a long period of time, to get older in it, to watch it change and to change along with it.
I don’t know how Gornick pulled this book off, because as I describe it, it feels as formless as conversation itself, the way, with a good friend, you can start in one place and end in another, having no idea how you got there.
Teach Us to Sit Still, by Tim Parks
Last year I wrote about discovering Tim Parks’s criticism, specifically his monthly(ish) blog posts for The New York Review of Books. This year, I decided to read one of his books, and chose his memoir, Teach Us to Sit Still, mainly because it was about meditation, something everyone was telling me to do, but which I was reluctant to try. I thought, if anyone can convince me to give meditation a chance, it’s Tim Parks. Still, I was skeptical. But the charm of this book is that Parks is also skeptical of meditation. He tries it out of desperation. He doesn’t want to change his life, but he has to. Teach Us to Sit Still describes how and why he makes that change.
From one angle, Teach Us to Sit Still is a disease story. There are symptoms, which lead to a diagnosis, which lead to a treatment plan. But from another angle, it’s a memoir about the writing process. Writers don’t often talk about the ways that their health affects their work, but Parks gets into the logistics of his day, explaining how he fit meditation into his daily routine — as well as the reviewing work he reluctantly gave up, so that he could fit it into this routine. He writes about trips to the doctor and the masseuse, about anxious late-night online searches, and about the quality of his sleep and his dreams. When he starts attending meditation retreats, he describes them with remarkable detail, especially when you realize that he wasn’t allowed to bring pen and paper (or laptop) with him. Most importantly, he writes about how his identity and work as a writer is challenged and changed by new engagement with his health. At one point, he toys with the idea of giving up writing entirely. Thankfully, he didn’t, and wrote this book instead.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I’m aware that you don’t need me to recommend this book, or even describe it, since it has been extensively praised, lauded, awarded, and reviewed all over the place, but to give an honest accounting of my year in reading, I have to mention it. Coates’s memoir was easily one of the best I’ve read in the past decade, one of those rare books into which the author has poured his entire life experience. It’s a stunning distillation of thought and study, one that traces Coates’s intellectual growth over three decades as he digs deeper and deeper into American history, uncovering the ways our ruthlessly violent past is woven into the present day, causing the deaths and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of black men.
At the center of the book is Coates’s rage over the death of his friend, Prince Jones, a star student and all-around exemplary young man who was killed by a police officer in 2000. There is a special vulnerability to Coates’s anger because the circumstances of Jones’s death are such that Coates feels he might have found himself in the same situation and been killed as needlessly. Coates calls Jones’s death “the superlative of all my fears” — for himself and for his 15-year-old son, to whom Between the World and Me is addressed. I love the moments in this book when Coates speaks directly to his son: “I am not a cynic. I love you and I love the world and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.”
There is an emotional directness to this line that characterizes so much of Coates’s writing and this memoir in particular. It is truly a beautiful book, and the exciting thing is that it feels like just one of many beautiful books Coates will write over the next few decades.
Writing about these three memoirs, I realized that what unites them is the way the authors mix very cerebral narratives with straightforward accounts of what it’s like to live in their bodies at their particular moment in history. They don’t divide the mind from the body mainly because they don’t have the luxury to do so — Coates because he’s a black man in America, Parks because he has chronic pain, and Gornick because she’s a woman living on her own. The result is books that gave me a profound sense of what it might be like to live through — as Gornick put it so beautifully — “the country of their lives.”
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