Mary Toft

Or, The Rabbit Queen

By Dexter Palmer


Well, holy shit.

Books surprise me all the time, for good and for ill. However, it rarely takes me half a book’s length to notice how good it is – I’m usually (not always) quicker on the uptake than that.

In my defense, books don’t usually want to hide their own goodness from you. It’s risky, after all: most people are willing to put a bad book down and walk away. Most books want to grab you immediately with their quality and keep a throttle-hold on you until the end, even past the end: for the exact length of time it takes for you to buy copies of them for everyone you know for Christmas.

So discretion turns out to be a rare quality in a book. It does happen, though, that a book comes along that has the skill to hide itself from you, distracting you so completely with scenery or plot that you fail to notice that it is excellent until it’s too late.


Mary Toft was a real person, a Surrey woman who, in 1726, orchestrated a hoax in which she convinced several reputable surgeons that she was giving birth to rabbits. Dexter Palmer has written a novel about this true story, told mainly from the point of view of Zachary, the fourteen-year-old apprentice of John Howard, the local surgeon who first encounters Mary.

I think that part of the reason that it took me so long to figure out that ‘Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen‘ is magnificent is that it is, deliberately and aggressively, revolting. Out of the goodness of my heart, I’ll spare you the nasty shock I received, as an example: I bet you assumed, when I wrote that Mary Toft was “giving birth to rabbits”, that the rabbits where alive. I bet you assumed that they were intact.

I did, much to my regret. Mary’s rabbits are not alive: in order to effect the hoax, the rabbits had to be killed, cut into pieces, and inserted into Mary’s womb, whence they were extracted by credulous surgeons. It is absolutely disgusting, and the first time John Howard birthed a rabbit’s head and a string of intestine from Mary Toft, I was knocked flat on my ass: literary skill was the furthest thing from my mind.

I was intended to be, I bet. Dexter Palmer is clever, and he is making a point. ‘Mary Toft‘ is a novel about truth and belief, about the difference between them, about why we believe the things that we believe. About why we are so persuaded by the evidence of our eyes, and what it is, exactly, our eyes find persuasive.

There aren’t many novels written about medical anomalies, and for reasons which, I think, are sound: they are difficult to read about, if you live in an age in which they are scarce. But they have not always been scarce, they are part of our common humanity, and Dexter Palmer requires that we see them because, if we can’t see them, we will not understand the world in which Mary Toft lived, we won’t understand why she did what she did, or how she was able to get away with it.

The medical consensus in the society into which Mary is born is that birth defects are the fault of mothers: impurities in their thoughts, sins which lie on their consciences, act to turn the children in their wombs from the path of normal development. If a mother spends her pregnancy thinking unwomanly thoughts, she risks the health of her child.

Dexter Palmer is writing about a world in which the war between science and religion is much younger than it is in ours. Medical anomalies, illnesses which cause malformations in the human form, are the sites of the most pitched battles of these wars. Why would an omniscient God allow babies to be born twisted, sick, in pain?

The answer is, of course, sin: God visits illness on those who deserve it. If you are sick, if you are born with an illness, if you develop one over the course of your life, then you must have deserved it. Why would God allow illness to strike you unless you did something wrong? The wretched, those in pain, suffer because they should, and if you are lucky, healthy, rich, you must therefore be good.

It’s important to understand this mindset because, without understanding it, it will be difficult to understand the cruelty with which the inhabitants of this world treat each other:

“Lord M- winked. “Humanity, Zachary. At any time in the history the earth there is exactly enough humanity to go around for each human to have one full share of it, to entitle himself to say that he is better than an animal because he walks on two legs, and sings, and invents money…But if I am very, very rich, and you are not so rich: well, then I,” Lord M- said, his hand on his heart, “can take some of yours…This is the last thing that money is good for, once you have as much as I do – to make myself more human, which regrettably but necessarily entails making you less human, by contrast.” (p. 235)


I didn’t notice how good ‘Mary Toft‘ was until about half of the way through.

I know that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is. People often talk about books getting a slow start, or taking a while to get going: this is emphatically not what happened with ‘Mary Toft‘.

What happened is, essentially, shock-and-awe. Dexter Palmer spends the first hundred pages of the novel knocking you around with grotesqueries, using the brutality of 18th century medicine to soften you up. By the time Palmer is ready to teach you something, you’ve forgotten that you’re reading the sort of the novel that might offer a moral lesson – you’re too busy trying NOT to imagine what it would be like to shove bits of a rabbit up your own vagina.

Which means that the moral lesson, which is lovely and brutal at the same time, has landed on you before you know it was launched.

Dexter Palmer

I suspect that this surprise-attack quality is exactly why a book would trouble to downplay its literary quality. Readers are like anyone else: they don’t like being preached at. When they see a lecture coming, they brace, ready their eyes for rolling. Those lectures are held at a critical distance

But when you are shattered and confused, transfixed by a woman pulling rabbit skulls out of her cooch, you are permeable; your critical faculties are shot all to hell.

Which is Palmer’s point: when your senses are overwhelmed, you are easier to trick. When you are struggling to understand something impossible, you are credulous, and vulnerable to someone with an agenda: to a sham religion, to a medical quack, or to a novelist who is trying to teach you about human kindness.

I lovedMary Toft‘. The writing is lovely, not in an ostentatious, “Look Ma I Got My MFA” prose-y kind of way – it is merely simple, effective, and graceful. It is surprising, and clever, and sad, and humane, and at times even funny. And, as an added bonus, it’s about the weirdest novelistic subject I’ve encountered in a while. It’s going to take a long time for some of the images contained in this book to shake out of my imagination. But I think it’s OK to have them there – I think they’re teaching me something.

The Information

A History, A Theory, A Flood

By James Gleick

Have you ever been in love with humanity when you began in a book, and in complete emotional flight from it by the time you finished?  Impressed in the beginning, overwhelmed by the end?  Awed, in the beginning: proud of what we have accomplished, by what we have learned; numbed and overcome, flooded and drowned, by the end?

The InformationBy the time I finished ‘The Information‘ by James Gleick, I was ready to abandon civilization, get back to the land.  To buy a shack somewhere in the middle of godforsaken nowhere, somewhere with no internet, no phone, no television, and never look back, never learn anything new, participate no longer in human progress.

The Information‘ is a history of the human relationship to information.  How we’ve understood it, categorized it, encoded it, compressed it, measured it.  How it has changed us, changed our thinking, our societies.  Ways you didn’t even think that it might have.

Gleick is a science writer, and ‘The Information‘ is about science, specifically about the science of information.  He takes his readers through African talking drums, the invention of writing, the printing press, the inventions of formal logic, the printing press, information theory, the telegraph, the telephone, the OED, the computer, and Wikipedia (to name a few).  He explains the basic mathematical concepts which allowed these advances, and shows the rapid acceleration, over historical time, of our ability to generate, store, send, and process information.

There is a wealth of neat stuff (for lack of a more precise, technical description) in this book: cool facts, good explanations, illuminating connections drawn between different people, ideas, technologies.  I love scientific histories, as a rule: I think it makes it easier to remember how a discovery works if you can embed it in its context.  The best scientific histories give science a human texture; they make it lovable.

For example, you may never master the language of Boolean algebra:

(x(P(x)→ ¬Q(x)) andx(¬Q(x)S(x)))(x(P(x)S(x)))

but who could help but love Lewis Carroll’s famous formulation of the same syllogism:

    1. Babies are illogical;
    2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
    3. Illogical persons are despised.

Conclusion: Babies cannot manage crocodiles.

Or, you may not think you care about what Einstein thought about quantum entanglement, but how can you be anything less than delighted to learn that, upon the publication of Einstein’s 1935 paper, ‘Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”, Wolfgang Pauli wrote to Werner Heisenberg, “Einstein has once again expressed himself publicly on quantum mechanics…As is well known, this is a catastrophe every time it happens.” (p. 366)

James Gleick
James Gleick

If this all sounds like a Nerd Alert to you, you are not wrong.  This is a book about science, and data, and math, and about the men and women who devoted their lives to understanding how those things work, to making incremental improvements to how we organize and retrieve information.  If you aren’t excited about how Turing machines worked, or what the difference is between a bit and byte, about whether or not Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem was correct or not (or whether or not it had anything to do with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory), then this probably isn’t your bag.

But it’s my bag, for sure.  Or, at least I thought it was, but honestly, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.

This isn’t the fault of the book, or of the author, but of humanity.  ‘The Information‘ is well-written, beautifully presented, thorough and approachable.  It’s interesting, gripping even, clear (for the most part).  It’s a very, very good book.

But it has filled me with despair.  There is so much that I don’t know, that I will never know.  Even today, the amount of information available to me could not be mastered in a thousand lifetimes, and those are just the things I would wish to learn.  And information is being produced at a rate which is unprecedented in human history: unprecedented and accelerating.

“As of 1972 businesses could lease high-speed lines carrying data as fast as 240 kilobits per second. Following the lead of IBM, whose hardware typically processed information in chunks of eight bits, engineers soon adopted the modern and slightly whimsical unit, the byte. Bits and bytes. A kilobyte, then, represented 8,000 bits; a megabyte (following hard upon), 8 million. In the order of things as worked out by international standards committees, mega- led to giga-, tera-, peta-, and exa-, drawn from Greek, though with less and less linguistic fidelity. That was enough, for everything measured, until 1991, when the need was seen for the zettabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and the inadvertently comic-sounding yottabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). In this climb up the exponential ladder, information left other gauges behind. Money, for example, is scarce by comparison.  After kilobucks, there were megabucks and gigabucks, and people can joke about inflation leading to terabucks, but all the wealth amassed 
by all the generations of humanity does not amount to a petabuck.” (p. 394)

I have come to the end of ‘The Information‘ feeling demoralized by my own mortal lifespan, my ignorance, my faulty memory and my lack of math prodigy.  I will not know all that there is to know; I will not know any minute fraction of what there is to know; I will not even master the subjects which matter to me.  I will not master anything, because knowledge is being produced too fast to allow mastery of anything for very long (and because I am a dilettante).

And if I am not master of my subject, how will I know truth from fiction?  How will I distinguish good information from bad?  Gleick deals with this problem explicitly, and his conclusion is not comforting to me.  Because ‘information’ is not the same as ‘truth’; ‘content’ is not the same thing as ‘veracity’.

“Still, who could love a theory that gives false statements as much value as true statements (at least, in terms of quantity of information)?  It was mechanistic.  It was desiccated.  A pessimist, looking backward, might call it a harbinger of a soulless internet at its worst.  “The more we ‘communicate’ the way we do, the more we create a hellish world,” wrote the Parisian philosopher – also a historian of cybernetics – Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

“I take “hell” in its theological sense, i.e., a place which is void of grace – the undeserved, unnecessary, surprising, unforeseen.  A paradox is at work here: ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning.”

That hellish world, devoid of grace – has it arrived?  A world of information glut and gluttony; of bent mirrors and counterfeit texts; scurrilous blogs, anonymous bigotry, banal messaging.  Incessant chatter.  The false driving out the true.” (p. 418)

Gleick does not believe so.  He sees a different world (one begins to suspect that he does not watch the news); his relationship to information is hopeful: “Infinite possibility is good, not bad.  Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared.  Language maps a boundless world of objects and sensations and combinations onto a finite space…We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.” (p. 419)

And I’m very happy for him, but this Sisyphean message has undone me utterly: it is very rare that I am so impressed by a book and yet so depressed by it.  Smarter, yes, but more acutely aware of how little I know, how little I will ever know.


By Gore Vidal

All Posts Contain Spoilers

JulianNo one is great at everything.

This is as true of writers as it is of everyone else – no one has mastered all forms.  And, as a reader, one tries to practice tolerance about this: there is no reason to deprive yourself of, say, Paul Theroux’s travelogues (which are astonishing) simply because his novels are…not astonishing.

Nevertheless, it’s always tough when someone you have come to love deeply through one form is disappointing in another.  It’s especially tough when the disappointing form is also the form for which they are most famous.  You expect greatness from them – you’ve seen it elsewhere – but you don’t find greatness.  You find mediocrity which has snuck into the Halls of Greatness behind their other, better work.

And your heart hurts for that writer you love, a little.  Because you know how good they can be at their best.  It’s sad to see them, who can be so wonderful, present themselves to the world in this less-flattering light.

I’m trying to explain my overwrought, emotional reaction to reading Gore Vidal’s novels.

Gore Vidal.jpg
Gore Vidal

As I have mentioned, I came to Gore Vidal through his essays.  And I fell in love with him.  This was the real deal – this was Great Love.  I thought he was magnificent.  I would have followed him anywhere.

And so I did – I followed him straightaway to the form for which he is most famous, the form he himself loved the best: the novel.  Vidal was a prolific novelist, writing a total of 30 of them (including the ones he wrote under pseudonyms) in his life.  This was great news for me: I had 30 novels worth of Gore Vidal to get through.  That’s like Christmas x 30!

Or so I thought.

Now, no one writes 30 novels of equal quality.  And, loving him as I do, I wanted to prolong the honeymoon.  So I rolled up to what is considered his best work (or among his best): ‘Julian‘*.

*For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that I actually read ‘Burr‘ first.  It was even less good, but love dies hard, and since Vidal had at least earned from me an open-hearted shot at his best novel, I put it out of my mind and proceeded to ‘Julian‘.

Julian‘ is the fictional autobiography of Julian Augustus, the last Pagan Emperor of the Roman Empire.  Vidal imagines an unpublished autobiography, dictated by the Emperor on his last campaign, against the Persian King Sapor, and annotated by two of his friends and teachers: the philosophers Libanius and Priscus.

If all that sounds a little convoluted and unclear, let me assure you: it is.  ‘Julian‘ takes a little getting used to.  The narrative switches points of view, bouncing between the dead Julian Augustus and the two living philosophers who quibble with him and with each other as they prepare his manuscript for posthumous publication (this semi-epistulary novel is a form of which Vidal is fond – ‘Burr‘ is also told in part through fictional memoir, part through fictional biographer).  But the reader will get the swing of it pretty quickly, especially once the text finally gets around to introducing Libanius and Priscus in the context of Julian’s life (fair warning: this crucial bit of narrative information only occurs a hundred odd pages into the text, so you fly blind for a while).

Julian‘ isn’t a bad novel.  It’s actually a lot better than I thought it was, halfway through.  But it isn’t a great novel.  It is, like most of us, deeply imperfect: it has real strengths and real weaknesses.

I don’t like trashing Vidal, whose essays will remain on my Desert Island Reading List, so let’s get the bad over with: ‘Julian‘ is over-stylized.  It’s too long, and it slogs in portions.  These are defensible sins – in fact, in my experience, these sins are characteristic of novels about the Roman Empire.  I suspect that this is because we have imbibed an impression (perhaps from their writing) that the Romans were all August and Imperial, and so we tend to lard our prose about them with pompous and heavy language.  To us, Latin intones, and so we intone about the Latins.  But intonation is no fun to read.

But ‘Julian‘ commits a graver sin: it lacks subtly.  There’s no missing the essential message of this book – it will be spelled out for you, in the form of long, didactic speeches, at least sixteen times.

The Emperor Julian Augustus

Julian‘ is an anti-Christian polemic.  Julian Augustus was the nephew of the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor.  Julian was raised Christian, and secretly converted some time before his accession.  When he was made Augustus, he initiated a series of reforms designed to restore Hellenism as the state religion, declaring a reign of religious toleration while subtly persecuting Christians (the point is well made by the text that, compared to what Christians would go on to do both to non-Christians and to each other, Julian’s persecutions really were just minor annoyances).

It would have been sufficient to simply describe Julian’s conversion.  But Vidal’s Julian is a zealot, a man consumed, and he (and his commentators) are prone to long, righteous passages indicting Christians for barbarity, stupidity, religious theft, hypocrisy, you name it.  By the end of the novel, it is very clear that Julian is not the only one locked in idealogical battle against Christianity, that Vidal himself has also taken up rhetorical arms against the Church.

“Preach only the Nazarene’s words and we shall be able to live with one another.  But of course you are not content with those few words.  You add new things daily.  You nibble at Hellenism, you appropriate our holy days, our ceremonies, all in the name of a Jew who knew them not.  You rob us, and reject us, while quoting the arrogant Cyprian who said that outside your faith there can be no salvation!  Is one to believe that a thousand generations of men, among them Plato and Homer, are lost because they did not worship a Jew who was supposed to be god?  A man not born when the world began?  You invite us to believe that the One God is not only ‘jealous,’ as the Jew say, but evil?” (p. 338)

It’s never good news for a novel when a reader is subjected to long diatribes about what are clearly the author’s own views (this is just one of the many, many sins of which Ayn Rand, who is essentially just a megaphone draped in the thinnest of plot, is guilty).  By the end of ‘Julian‘, one has begun to suspect that the whole reason Vidal chose this subject for his novel was so that he could screed against Christianity.  This is not a decision which bears artistic scrutiny.

Which is a shame, because Julian himself turns into an interesting character, and a novel which begins ploddingly becomes kind of gripping.  Vidal’s Julian is a complicated and evolving character, a human being turning into an Emperor, and as he approaches his death, your anxiety rises.  Like a protagonist in any historical novel, Julian’s death is known and certain.  It’s a feat to make a reader care about a Roman Emperor, and it’s a feat to make them fear a certain death, and Vidal does both.

Maybe it’s because Vidal was a brilliant but grandiose man grasping after truth, that he has a gift for understanding other brilliant but grandiose men grasping after truth.  And he has painted a beautiful portrait, and led his Emperor to a death which will distress his readers.  This is no small thing, and I would not want to penalize ‘Julian‘ for my own high expectations.  If anyone else had written ‘Julian’, I would have said it was a decent historical novel.  It was.  It pales in comparison with Vidal’s non-fiction, but it was well worth a read.

I only wish I had read it first, so that I still had something to look forward to.

And The Band Played On

Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

By Randy Shilts

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Sometimes, it’s tough to belly up to a big, heavy history book.

You know the kind of book I mean: a magisterial, dense tome dealing, in depth, with some somber human chapter.  Hundreds of pages on a topic about which serious adults always seem to know more than you.

You feel that you should read them, the way that you should eat well and exercise, but every time you contemplate actually cracking them open, you think, ‘Yikes, I’m not going to laugh once during this,’, and so go and watch another episode of ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ instead.

And The Band Played OnAnd the Band Played On‘ has been weighing on my conscience for a year or so now, squatting on my ‘To Read’ shelf and glowering at me.  Every time I reach for a novel, it’s red-letter title gleams at me, as though it were asking, ‘Do you really need to read another Graham Greene novel?  Don’t you care about the victims of the AIDS epidemic?’

Well, I do care about the victims of the AIDS epidemic, and I’ve run out of Graham Greene novels, and so I finally buckled down and read ‘And the Band Played On‘.

First of all, let me say that ‘And the Band Played On‘ is not what I thought it was going to be.  It is not a dry, magisterial history; rather, it’s part narrative history, part journalism, part advocacy.  It does endeavor to tell the story of the AIDS epidemic in the United States (and a little in Western Europe), but it does not pretend to objectivity.  It has a viewpoint, and it is forthright in assigning blame and giving praise.

Randy Shilts

Randy Shilts was a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle during the 1980s and, as the epidemic developed, he became one of the first reporters in the country to cover AIDS as a full-time beat.  San Francisco did not have the largest absolute number of AIDS cases in the United States (New York City did), but it did have the largest and most civically powerful gay male population, and the largest number of cases per capita.  Shilts was therefore witness at one of the population centers hardest hit, and most responsive, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and he manages to imbue his book with the sense of creeping dread and unnameable fear that he himself must have felt.

It’s not a book for the faint of heart, or for the easily outraged.  If Shilts is to be believed*, then the unfolding of the AIDS crisis in America was a clusterfuck of every kind of human recalcitrance, incompetence, and malevolence.  Racism, classism, homophobia, cowardice, complacence, narcissism, over-weaning ambition, and bureaucratic inertia all combined to slow realization of, and effective reaction to, the crisis.  And many, many people died because of it.

That is the most difficult part of ‘And the Band Played On‘: most of the characters to whom you are introduced, the real people for whom you root and to whom you become attached, perish.  They die, slowly, and in agony, and there is nothing you can do to help them.  You, from your vantage of thirty years on, know exactly what’s killing them, but there is no way to alert the people around them, to persuade them to abandon their biases and their prejudice and to see what’s really happening.  It’s heart-breaking, because so few of the obstacles in the way of an effective response to the AIDS crisis in the United States were, in hindsight, legitimate.  Most stemmed from human bungling, callousness or, worse, evil.  And this powerless on your part to alter the past makes the reading of this book claustrophobic, and very upsetting.

This is not a book which will leave you with good feelings about your fellow man.  Of course, it’s not a chapter in our history which was going to leave you feeling good about your fellow man, and you probably knew that going in; I certainly didn’t expect this to be a fun read.  Nevertheless, there are details in here which are so dismal, petty and caustic to the soul, that they will stay with me for the rest of my life.  This, for example:

‘Haitian Americans suffered multiple indignities in the two cities where they were most concentrated, Miami and New York.  Just trying on a pair of shoes in Florida sometimes became a traumatic experience, because salespeople declined to let anyone who looked Haitian near any merchandise.’ (p. 322)

Or this:

‘The guide to British aristocracy, Burke’s Peerage, announced that, in an effort to preserve ‘the purity of the human race,’ it would not list any family in which any member was known to have AIDS. (p. 565)

Or this:

‘Two AIDS sufferers were scheduled to be part of an ‘A.M. San Francisco’ segment whose goal was to ‘demystify’ AIDS and calm the fears.  However, the two patients couldn’t appear on the show because studio technicians refused to mike them.  Then, cameraman said they would not shoot the show if they had to walk onto the same sound stage as the two gay men.  The two patients instead talked through a telephone in a separate room.’
(p. 321)

Larry Kramer
Larry Kramer, an early and controversial AIDS activist, features prominently in the text.  He was one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and is the author of, among other things, ‘The Normal Heart’.  As of writing, he is still alive.

But just because something is emotionally difficult to read isn’t an excuse for avoiding it.  It’s important to know about our national moral failures as well as our glorious successes.  And I would argue that, if you’re determined to learn about the AIDS crisis, or about modern epidemics in general, this is a good book to read.

There are arid portions – there is a lot of policy building, lots of CDC budgets, which will alienate non-wonks – but, for the most part, Shilts has made this subject matter as riveting as possible.  The focus is almost entirely on individuals, which, while distressing, will help you stay focused.  It is exhaustive; there is an astonishing amount of information in this book – the amount of reporting work Shilts must have done boggles the mind.  In that sense alone, it really is a colossal achievement.

But though it has a clear point of view, I think that the best compliment that I can give this book is this: I did not even suspect until I looked him up when I finished – it didn’t even occur to me to ask the question – that Randy Shilts was a gay man.  He refused to be tested for the AIDS virus until he had completed this book, fearing that a positive diagnosis would compromise his objectivity.  He tested positive in March, 1987.

Randy Shilts died of AIDS complications in 1994.  He was 42.

*I don’t mean to imply personal disbelief; I mention it only because I am aware that there has been some controversy surrounding the book.  As I understand it (and my understanding is superficial at best), the controversy involves Shilts’ treatment of Gaetan Dugas, a gay man who came to known, in part because of Shilts’ work, as Patient Zero of the AIDS epidemic.  Genetic studies conducted nearly 30 years after his death exonerated Dugas.


A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Why is it that only men write books like this?

It’s never a great idea to deal in generalizations, and I’m sure that there are exceptions, but women usually don’t (to their credit, I think), write books like this one, making global, grandiose claims about the human condition.  A woman might write a book examining, say, the thickness of weft threads of linens woven under the late Egyptian Pharaohs; down the hall, her male colleague will write a book about why humans strive, or some such garbage.

I have just read one of those male-authored garbage books.Sapiens

It’s my own fault, really: I had plenty of warning that it was going to be.  I was informed about what sort of book it was not only by the author, Dr. Harari, himself (the subtitle is, after all, ‘A Brief History of Humankind‘), but by its many adoring readers: ‘Sapiens‘ (and Harari’s next book, the nauseatingly titled ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow‘) have become the latest favorite texts of exactly the sort of male, Silicon Valley hardos who eat up these kinds of superficial, explain-all Theories of Everything.

OK, but, let’s at least try to be fair: a book should never be discounted simply because it has terrible fans.  There are nice things to be said about ‘Sapiens‘, including:

  1. Harari is not a bad writer.  He does tend to the overly-colloquial at times, which makes him sound a little like your dorky history teacher trying to connect with you (‘Finally, people began to make a more careful selection among the sheep in order to tailor them to human needs.  The most aggressive rams, those that showed the greatest resistance to human control, were slaughtered first…Voila! Mary had a little lamb and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go‘ (p. 92).  It makes you cringe).  But this is a venal sin, and, in general, his arguments are lucid and succinct.
  2. He covers an astonishing amount of material, even if he does it, by necessity, cursorily.  And he is excellent at choosing supporting examples; he draws from an enormous range of historical anecdote, and deploys his anecdotes interestingly and well.
  3. A few of his many, many arguments are thought-provoking and unusual in today’s academic atmosphere.  For example, he makes a pretty spirited case for the idea that bigger, more consolidated governments (i.e. more Federal), and empires in general, are better at promoting peace and prosperity for more people over historical time.  In a time of increasing Balkanization and more focus on local self-determination, it is worth reading an intelligent, measured defense of this idea.

Yuval Noah Harari is a Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

However, these good points do not add up to a successful venture.  The trouble with any project of this kind is that, since the scope is so wide, the conclusions must be glib.  In fact, even when Harari makes perfect sense, you are left with the disconcerting sense that he is making too much sense, that he has dispensed with something complicated and important too quickly and out of hand.  It makes him seem tricky, like he’s rushing through his argument so you don’t notice its holes.  Like he’s selling snake oil, and not waiting around for you to discover that it doesn’t work.

Here is an example:

“Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural.  But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural.  Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.  A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.  No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesize, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.” (p. 147)

At first read, that paragraph makes perfect sense; more, it seems like rather a good point, doesn’t it?

It isn’t; it’s shallow and pat.  His argument hinges on a deliberately obtuse reading of the word ‘unnatural’.  Harari is insisting that ‘unnatural’ means ‘impossible in nature’, when clearly it means no such thing.  In fact, humans now do things all the time which are ‘impossible in nature’ (to see how disingenuous he is on this point, just substitute ‘faster than the speed of light’ above with ‘faster than the speed of sound’, another ‘impossible’ thing which we now do regularly).  Some formerly ‘impossible’ things have become taboo (genetically engineering children which glow in the dark: totally possible, taboo); some have not (supersonic travel).

More than that, when people indict a behavior as ‘unnatural’, they clearly do not mean that it is impossible – they mean that it isn’t in accordance with the goals of biology (usually stable sexual reproduction) as they understand them.  That may be a stupid standard (I think it is), but deliberately misunderstanding ‘unnatural’ to mean ‘not possible’ so that nothing that can be done can be ‘unnatural’ is equally stupid.  This is a complicated problem of morals and language; it should not be done away with in one paragraph.

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This is what I’m talking about: a diagram of resource flow during the scientific revolution, with only three nodes (p. 250).

There are many problems like this, places where something thorny and nuanced is dispatched too quickly.  And, to be fair to him, Harari might well answer that that was intentional, that he simply could not cover what he needed to cover and do everything justice.  He would probably be right.  If you’re trying to get from Homo erectus to cyborgs, you can’t stop and smell every rose.

But I question the very project: did we need this book?  I came away with the impression that Dr. Harari is a good thinker; did we really need him to survey human history for us?  Is human history the sort of topic best understood in survey form?  Might his mind have been better tasked with answering one of the many interesting questions that he poses in more depth and, frankly, with more integrity?  Isn’t it almost always better to acknowledge complexity than to gloss over it?  I think so.

Perhaps the best way to put it is this: I do not regret reading ‘Sapiens‘, and I might even recommend it to other readers of certain tastes.  But you’re going to have to put a gun to my head to get me to read ‘Homo Deus‘.