Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997)
W.W. Norton & Company, 1999

If I had hesitated in including this amongst my reads for the Science Book Challenge, my doubts were laid to rest when I realized that Guns, Germs and Steel won the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science. (There must be bookgroups that follow this list as loyally as I follow the Orange Prize and the Giller Prize lists.) But, in fact, it was winning the Pulitzer that brought this book to my attention.

And although it’s clearly categorized as ‘science’ on the back cover, the prologue didn’t read as I’d expected a science book to read. Sure, there was some biology in there, but I was struck by the history and the anthropology. It was interesting stuff.

See, there’s that bias of mine. I think of a science book like a lot of people think of broccoli: it might do me a lot of good, but it’s not fun.

And, if you’re like me, I’m not really sure what I could say to change your mind. See, there are these florets, little green buds that collect the sauce, whether it’s butter or oil. And when you get tired of soft bits, there is the stalk, which is (when cooked properly) more substantive, but still flavourful. (And it also makes a great soup stalk, with even the older and overgrown stalks tender within.) But no, if you don’t like broccoli, there’s nothing I can say that will convince you to love it.

Maybe you’ve been served far too many overcooked, wilty and sad, plates of it. Maybe Aunt Mabel pulverized it and slipped into everything — maybe even your breakfast cereal — and never gave it a proper chance. But perhaps you would agree that liking it depends on how it’s been cooked for you. My 7-year-old step-daughter now counts it as her favourite vegetable (read: the only truly tolerable one) and it all comes down to cooking it exactly perfectly. Which means, exactly the way that she likes it, not too cooked, not too crispy.

And that’s exactly what I like about Jared Diamond’s style. It’s not too academic, and it’s not entirely popularized either.

The prose itself is straightforward. Some sections of it are dense (but I’m betting that comes down to reading experience, so that portions that I needed to read twice, another reader might not, whereas other portions that were immediately accessible to me were more challenging to other readers). But there are no footnotes or endnotes to slow you down. And there is a casual tone which pulls you along (he uses ‘I’ and ‘we’ and colloquial phrases) even though there is a lot of content to work through.

But here’s a taste of the kind of material he covers. In Part Four, each chapter is about 20-25 pages long and the chapter headings are:
Yali’s People: The histories of Australia and New Guinea;
How China Became Chinese: the history of East Asia;
Speedboat to Polynesia: The history of the Austronesian expansion;
Hemispheres Colliding: The histories of Eurasia and the Americas compared; and
How Africa Became Black: The history of Africa.

And then there are about 3 pages of additional reading provided for each chapter in the back of the book. Yup, you could easily spend a year (or a lifetime) reading and studying and contemplating even one of these topics. Or you could read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.

Or you could read Collapse, subtitled How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), which I’ve actually listened to twice on audio. It was amazing. See, that’s something I don’t often say about broccoli, even though I do like it. But Collapse was a book that changed the way that I look at the world.

And Guns, Germs and Steel is just that kind of book. Maybe you wouldn’t want to serve it for every meal, but as an occasional entree, it’s scrumptious. It’s like serving the whole world on a plate of 500 pages. And. It. Really. Is. Interesting. Really.

Come on: won’t you just try a spoonful?

PS Science-y concepts of which I have very little understanding but which contributed greatly to this book without lessening my enjoyment of it one bit: genetics, radiocarbon dating, domestication of plants, evolution, palaeoethnobotany, ecology, horticulture, zoology, taxonomy, phylogeny, microbiology, epidemiology, and technology. Hunh, just typing those out makes me feel a tiny bit smarter. Could you pass me another serving, please?