I’m sure you’ve heard about Sapiens by now.
Some call it the book of the century.
Others swear it gave them mental clarity needed to succeed in life.
And people like Barack Obama and Bill Gates claim this is a must-read, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of book.
On the other hand, some historians and anthropologists see it as biased and manipulative.
So which one is it – is this the best book you’ll ever read or a complete waste of your time?
Well, you’ve got to follow with me here to find out!
Title: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Published: 2011 in Hebrew, 2014 in English
No. of pages: approx. 500
Number of copies sold: approx. 12 million globally (together with Homo Deus)
How long it took me to read it: a few months! (I read other books meanwhile)
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind begins 70,000 years ago with the start of the Cognitive Revolution – an event of massive importance in human history that shaped life as we know it today.
Homo Sapiens used to be just one of the many species that wandered the Earth. There were also the Neanderthals and the Homo Erectus.
But somehow, we, Homo Sapiens, ended up conquering the world – were we that smart or did we just get lucky? What made us stand out among the rest – and is that the same thing that’s going to help us survive in the next years to come?
The author tries to fit the whole history of humankind in a mere 500 pages and offer the reader a simplified explanation for every bigger why, when and how.
And if you ask me, he didn’t do too bad of a job of it.
Things I liked:
Here’s what I loved about reading Sapiens!
- The storytelling
I’ve never read a non-fiction history book with such delightful storytelling. Yes, delightful is the right word!
Actually, the storytelling is so good, it doesn’t even feel like reading a history book – it feels as if someone is telling you a tale.
- The particular events described
“History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”
And yet, there are billions of events that happened throughout history – how do you pick the most important ones?
I was both baffled and impressed with the choice of stories he made.
All the way from the Mississippi Bubble to the roots of capitalism and Dutch joint-stock companies to child mortality rates and Queen Eleanor’s 16 children (out of which only one survived!), I’m not likely to forget any of them any time soon.
- It made me think!
Scratch that – it still makes me think! Months after I’m done reading the book, I still pick it up sometimes and go over certain parts.
Each time I feel a wave of gratitude washing over me because I realize, over and over again, that the 21st century is probably the best time to be alive so far – we’re all lucky!
I suddenly realized that if I were born a mere 50 years earlier, my life would be very much different – and I’m not sure I would even be alive and kicking enough to write this review!
- It makes for a great gift!
If you want to give a memorable gift that fits into almost everyone’s library, then Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is the way to go!
It’s meaningful, it has a beautiful cover – I know, I know! – and it’s something I proudly display on my shelves.
Things I didn’t quite like
It’s not that I hated these things but I feel obligated to mention them.
- Is it really non-fiction?
History is always written by the winners, goes a famous quote.
Even though I agree with mostly everything said in the book, is this really a non-fiction history book… or is it just the author’s point of view?
At times, it’s hard to make the line between the two.
- It took me too long to finish!
Sapiens is not your casual book.
It’s not something you would read after a long day at work to help you unwind. I read most of it during the weekends – I simply did not have the mental capacity to push through it during the week.
It is HEAVY!
Sure, the language in the book is easy to digest but all that information is not. It’s packed full of facts and data and the author jumps from one story to another in a majestic way… but you do have to know what he’s talking about.
Let’s say, if you’ve slept through your history lesson on the Aztec and the Incas in high school, it might take you a while to understand the size of the damage the Spaniard conquest did to them.
- The ending
To be quite honest, I also didn’t quite enjoy the ending.
I mean, he has a point but I wasn’t overly impressed with it.
Maybe because futuristic kind of reads aren’t my thing; maybe because I like to be an optimist; maybe because I don’t think we – homo sapiens! – are all that horrible.
Who can tell for sure?
Food for thought
Before you go, here are a few quotes from Sapiens to make you think!
“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”
“So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.”
“How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.”
“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 behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.”
“According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify.”
“One of history’s fews iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally, they reach a point where they can’t live without it. Over the few decades, we have invented countless time-saving machines that are supposed to make like more relaxed – washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email. We thought we were saving time; instead, we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.”
“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
Have you read Sapiens? What do you make of it – is it the book of the century or just another book to cross off your to-read list?
Next time, I’ll be talking about audiobooks!