Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Title: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Edition: Vintage Books, Paperback
Piotrek: Ambitious title for a 500 pages book, ain’t it? This young (born 1976) and charismatic Israeli historian – and his is a professional historian, with his DPhil thesis titled History and I : war and the relations between history and personal identity in Renaissance military memoirs, c.1450-1600. written in Oxford – aims to catch the essence of our history, as a species, in one tome. The result is certainly very successful, since 2011 published in multiple languages and its author became a public intellectual with TED Talks and countless interviews available on Youtube and elsewhere. We are here to judge if the world is right 😉
Ola: Oh well, there’s nothing like a catchy beginning, is there? 😛 But on a more serious note, Harari’s ambitions were huge, and a bit of hubris was, I guess, unavoidable – especially if you want to market a de facto historical book to a wide, mostly lay, public. Harari’s book, however, deserves its hype, for it’s written in a flowing, precise style, and delivers an abundance of catchy, well devised examples to better explain the more abstract concepts.
Author: Edward Luttwak
Title: The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire from the First Century AD to the Third
I really enjoyed our last post and first excursion into non-fiction, and so now I follow with another one, this time less controversial and something every epic/military fantasy fan can safely read. My original idea for how to select non-fiction books for Re-enchantment was to find tomes that could be used to better enjoy genre fiction. I’m a great believer in context, in building up one’s general knowledge to see the broader picture. It’s crucial for every serious reader of historical novels, but with fantasy, so deeply connected to the medieval and ancient history of our planet, it’s just as useful. There were never any wizards nor dragons on this Earth, but we had knights, and legions, and empires that had to rely on primitive (when compared to our) technology – and if we read a bit about them, we can judge – and appreciate – the worldbuilding of genre masters so much more.
The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire… by Edward Luttwak was a book I mentioned before, while criticizing a semi-historical novel I did not like, but Luttwak is not a starting point for people interested in Roman history. For that, go to /r/history, they have excellent sections for book and podcast recommendation. Books I’ve read are in Polish and 10-20 years behind latest research. Luttwak wrote a book on strategy of an ancient empire and whatever historians of antiquity might find in his arguments, it’s a great way to further your understanding of how difficult it was to defend a large state without modern communications and logistics. It definitely should be read by every genre author with worldbuilding ambitions.
Some time ago, inspired by Bart from one of our favorite blogs, Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it, we decided to start including some non-fiction on Re-enchantment. While the initial idea was to go for books that provide wider context for popular genre fiction, ultimately we decided to start with one that provides some insight into the very human nature, by exploring the social nature of other primates. Frans de Waal, world-famous (there’s even a TED 😉 ) Dutch-American primatologist, is on Bart’s list with several of his books, we’ve both read The Bonobo and the Atheist recently, and it was a thought-provoking experience, although it provoked slightly different thought in each of us.
Author: Frans de Waal
Title: The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates
In search of Humanism Among the Primates de Waal looks not only into the militant chimpanzees, but also the famously peaceful bonobo. Lifetime of research, combined with his private interest in art and philosophy, guide this journey to discover the origin of our species’ morality – and spirituality – in the societal structures and the psychological and social makeup of our closest animal relatives. If all the primates share not only social nature, but also empathy, it was arguably also present in our common ancestors, and our nature is not as rotten as some of us were convinced since childhood. Moreover, he provides us with ample examples of other species showing self-awareness and kindness previously attributed only to humans, and if on decidedly smaller levels, it’s a matter of degree.
Empathy requires awareness of the other and sensitivity to the other’s needs. It probably started with parental care, like that found in the mammals, but there is also evidence for bird empathy. […] If both birds and mammals have some measure of empathy, that capacity probably goes back to their reptilian ancestors.
He does it skilfully, being not only an incredibly skilled and competent scientist (as his resume informs us), but also a gifted storyteller. Consequently, The Bonobo and the Atheist is a great book for both a casual and a scientifically-inclined reader; in addition to its atheism-related theses, already mentioned in the title, it gives us valuable insight into the current state of research of other primates’ social nature.