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BOOK REVIEW: Sapiens

October 18, 2019

Thanks to Jennifer Taylor, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. [Toronto]: Signal, 2014.

I have often heard that if we choose not to learn from the mistakes of history, we will inevitably end up repeating them. Though it is undeniably very practical advice to be aware of the perils and pitfalls to which we as human beings are susceptible, in spite of my best intentions to be a well-informed member of the species, history has never been a subject that has thrilled me. I took the requisite courses in high school, of course - but names and dates blurred together and important concepts failed to stick with me. More than a decade later, I obtained Sapiens at the recommendation of a family member.

It took less than two pages to realize that this history book is unique. Beginning approximately 2 million years ago with the plethora of human species that failed to survive past 12,000 BCE and spanning into predictions for the future, Harari’s Sapiens focuses on broad concepts and questions that have influenced the behaviours and movements of Homo sapiens as a species, rather than the individuals who may have made culturally significant impacts on a smaller scale. Harari presents the vast and complex history of our species chronologically, organized largely by the Revolutions that set human beings apart from their non-world-dominating counterparts, extinct and otherwise: Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific.

The Cognitive Revolution represents the transition of sapiens from one of many human species struggling for survival into the dominant species on the planet - but the explanation for that transition is not as simple as large brains and opposable thumbs. Human species possessed those traits for millions of years and remained in the middle of the food chain. Gaining control of fire and developing language are also not unique to Homo sapiens. So how did they, in a relatively short span of time, become the only surviving species of humans? And how did they then develop from bands of 50 citizens cooperating together into cities of millions?

The Agricultural Revolution, which Harari refers to as “history’s biggest fraud”, describes the progression of modern humans from a population of hunter-gatherers into communities of farmers. How and why did this change take place? And was the domestication of grain the benefit to the species we believe it to be? How do we define evolutionary success and whether or not we, as humans, have been successful?

Beginning about 500 or so years ago, the goals of education transitioned from preservation and validation of existing rules to discovery and acquisition of new ones in a process called the Scientific Revolution. By accepting that modern culture was ignorant, it opened the door to scientific discoveries and real progress. This change led to the discovery of medications, the invention of new weapons, and the stimulation of economic resources that led to men on the moon and the invention of the atomic bomb. But do technological advancements necessarily mean that quality of life - rather than lifespan - has improved? Is Capitalism the key to progress, or a cult that holds the hardest-working members of its population back? What will continued technological advancements mean for the future of Homo sapiens, who are, biologically, little different than we were 200,000 years ago?

Enormous questions such as these have no simple answers, but Harari tackles them with a level of knowledge and insight that allows him to lay out the myriad facets of each topic with eloquence and clarity. Sapiens is written in language accessible to laypeople with a degree of humour, but uses it to set forth complex concepts and theories about the history of human beings. And as promised, that history is repeating itself. According to Harari, Homo sapiens are no stranger to causing mass extinction on a global scale. Nor is the current post-truth climate the first time our species has been willing to justify behaviour based on common myths. Even being ensnared in the “luxury trap”, an endless cycle of working harder in pursuit of luxuries we aren’t able to enjoy, is part of the history of humankind. Though understanding our history may not allow us to accurately predict the future, it does allow us to “widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural or inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”

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BOOK REVIEW: The Stonewall Reader

August 9, 2019

Thanks to Laken Brooks, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

The Stonewall Reader, edited by the New York Public Library, was published by Penguin Classics in 2019. The book brings LGBT archives to life by presenting a graceful and radical chronology of LGBT history in America. Edmund White’s foreword establishes a raw, personal insight into the social tensions brewing before and during Stonewall. White’s candid, if not irreverent, tone complements the more academic historiography in Jason Bauman’s introduction. Together, these first two sections suggest that The Stonewall Reader appeals to both a public and an academic audience, combining archival information with engaging personal narrative. A reader may be surprised, like me, to realize that the editors have listed their suggested readings at the start of the book, after the introduction, instead of in the appendix. However, this intentional placement provides a sense of ethos. This text draws on work from other writers and activists, and this early reading list conveys a sense of the editors’ humility. The list reminds the reader that this book is one of many texts that represent the LGBT community, a diverse group of people instead of a monolith.

The New York Public Library has edited this book with an eye on cohesion. The book itself is a collection of various letters, autobiographies, and other texts from the LGBT community. The book organizes these pieces into three broad categories: Before Stonewall, During Stonewall, and After Stonewall. The first entry in Before Stonewall is a selection from Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. While Lorde describes covert glances between quiet lesbians who pass one another on the street, the book’s last piece emphasizes the progress since Stonewall. Chirlane McCray’s “I Am a Lesbian” bookends The Stonewall Reader by, in its title alone, speaking aloud the identity that many have kept hidden. Lorde’s and McCray’s texts also excavate the marginalized history of lesbians of color. The reader should not underestimate that The Stonewall Reader prioritizes writing from people of color when many media accounts portray white, cisgender, gay men as the primary subjects of America’s queer history.

The Stonewall Reader deserves a place on college syllabi. Younger readers, such as those in middle and high school, may have difficulty intuitively connecting the tones and topics in each section because the New York Public Library mostly lets each primary text speak for itself without editorial footnotes or comment. Furthermore, the collection contains graphic examples of police brutality, sexuality, and other content that an educator might need to preface with content warnings. However, the diverse texts can spark rich discourse for older readers. The primary source material, from legal documents to literary memoirs, allows this book to stretch across disciplines. Professors who teach gender studies, American history, civil rights, library science, archival studies, or queer theory could assign this book for their students. While The Stonewall Reader is well-curated, one benefit of the book is that professors can thoughtfully scalpel out samples of each section to make new connections or to emphasize certain experiences. Readers interested in queer history may consider the following texts alongside The Stonewall Reader: Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States (2012), Don Romesburg’s The Routledge History of Queer America (2018), Allida M. Black’s Modern American Queer History (2001), Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin’s Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America (2005), John Howard’s Men Like That: A Southern Queer History (1999), Eric Marcus’ Making Gay History (2009), and Vicki L. Eaklor’s Queer America: A People’s GLBT History of the United States (2011).

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BOOK REVIEW: Better With Books

July 12, 2019

Thanks to Laken Brooks, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Melissa Hart’s Better With Books is a crash-course in diverse young adult literature. The book suggests preteen and teen reading lists in the following categories: adoption and foster care, body image, immigration, learning challenges, LGBTQ+ youth, mental health, environmentalism, physical disability, poverty and homelessness, race and ethnicity, and spirituality. Hart debuts Better With Books in a time of increasing sociopolitical tension and growing diversity; however, she effectively references contemporary issues like immigration policies to argue that reading - now more than ever - is a vital tool to grow a new generation of empathetic and civic-minded people.

Hart relies on breadth rather than depth to introduce her audience to as many books about as many marginalized identities and experiences as possible. This scope succeeds because Hart writes to a friendly audience of fellow educators and caregivers. From the foreword written by Sharon M. Draper, a National Teacher of the Year recipient, to her own introductory comments on social issues in the classroom, Hart establishes this book as a necessary reference for any teacher. Therefore, she spends little time making the case that books do actually promote empathy in young readers. After all, her intended audience of educators supposedly agree that diverse representation in literature is a foundation for civic values. Hart does argue, though, that diverse literature has transformational, measurable change on individual students.

While Hart’s book operates as a guide of suggested reading lists and book summaries, the most fulfilling sections are the chapter introductions. She frames every chapter with stories about how one book has changed a child’s life. Hart deftly expands the lens in each chapter from an individual -- an immigrant, the mother of a transgender daughter, and Hart’s own child -- to a larger population. For example, in Chapter 1, Hart describes Lyda, a preteen who lived in foster care. After reading Steve Pemberton’s memoir A Chance in the World, something shifts in Lyda’s life. Now a college honors student, Lyda says, “literature can help … It pushes you to feel for characters and makes you want to do something about the issues they’re facing” (3). Hart then zooms from Lyda to the following: “At any given time, 438,000 US kids live in foster care” (3). Upon closer investigation, a reader may recognize rhetorical flaws in these large jumps from individual students to entire populations. While no one student’s experience can represent a marginalized group, Hart does effectively hook readers by demonstrating how books have changed one person’s life. The not-too-subtle suggestion, then, is that a book can also change numerous more lives. As per the back cover, “Through the power of reading, kids can find comfort and perspective,” but adults should curate these books to “find a way into meaningful conversations with their tweens and teens.”

Hart does not necessarily imply that all students will engage with books in the same way, but she does use literacy as the thread through which she invites readers to imagine a better future. After citing the 438,000 children in foster care, Hart ends her introduction by returning to Lyda being adopted. She describes a photo in which Lyda poses with her parents at a baseball game: “In the photo, they look joyful … intimate. They look like a family” (9). On the next page, the reader sees a stock list of book summaries and suggestions. While the transition to the reading list may seem abrupt, this tension highlights Hart’s intention. She pushes the reader to make the connection back to their own classroom, encouraging educators to fill in the gap between Lyda’s story and their students. While teachers cannot possibly ensure that every child is adopted or has a happy ending, Hart emphasizes the readers’ responsibility to help other children feel acknowledged and validated by reading books about people like themselves.

While Hart thoughtfully and soulfully connects individual people to life-changing texts, her text could benefit from precision. For example, Hart lists preteen and teenage options without describing how she is labeling the texts as such: reading level, maturity of content, states curriculum guides, or other metrics? Additionally, Hart could preface her introduction with a note on how she avoided books that tokenize diverse groups. For example, in the section on physical disability, Hart could have clearly noted which books were actually designed for readers with disabilities: books with multimodal components and Braille translations. Furthermore, a brief conclusion would provide more cohesion to the text and a final call to action for the reader.

Better With Books is much needed as a down-to-earth reading guide that connects educators and parents with books about diversity. Hart writes with an easy-to-navigate format, an accessible tone, and a clear conscious.

Hart, Melissa. Better With Books. Sasquatch Books, 2019, Print.

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Dear Reader

June 28, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Letters often hold interest for me as a researcher and reader. They demonstrate humanity in ways that other writing cannot. People allow themselves a level of intimacy on paper that is not allowed in other areas of life. I love to write letters and I do lament that they are not as popular now as they once were. This is one of the reasons that I became interested in a collection of letters titled Velocity of Being, Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick. In it, the editors have compiled letters from many famous and successful individuals, scientists, artists, musicians, and authors. One interesting aspect of this book is that the letters are all written to an unknown reader, but yet some of the letters are still startling intimate. These letters, written by successful and interesting individuals, explain how or why books have helped them in life. They all encourage us to read, but the reasons for doing so vary from person to person, and experience to experience. There are so many letters worth reading, but I have space share only a handful on today’s blog. I invite you to peek into the book yourself to better understand what your favorite public figure thinks of reading.

From Ann Patchett (page 242)

“[N]othing that matters in life should be taken for granted, so if you love to read, here’s how you can ensure that the generation after you and the generation after them will keep at it: all you have to do is read books. Sometimes you should read them in public places. At least some of the time read books that are printed on paper and hold them up so people can see what you’re doing. When they say, ‘Is that book any good?’ stop reading for a minute and answer them. The wonder of books is that they are worlds we enter into alone, and yet at the same time they can connect us to other people.”


From James Gleick (page 248)

“[S]omehow you do learn to read. Then, when you open a book, you scarcely see the letters or even the words. They vanish, an invisible blur across the printed page, while the information they encode pours into your mind as if through a fire hose. Look. Listen. Moonlight shining in the window; a mysterious smile glimpsed in a mirror; a muffled cry from a distant room; the squelch of wet shoes on the tile. Sights and sounds rise from the page and mingle with your experience and stir your memories. You fill in the empty spaces. There is no reading without imagination.”

From Anne Lamont (page 254)

“Books are paper ships, to all worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and – the most precious stunning journey of all – into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.”

From Elizabeth Alexander (page 256)

“In the 1920s she [Alexander’s grandmother] wrote to a university in Denmark: I am what is known as an American Negro, and I imagine you have never known one. Will you invite me to come and study at your school? This was one of my favorite of her stories. Why Denmark, I would ask her, entranced by her tales of smorgasbord, the puzzle ring she brought back from a suitor that one day became mine, and the sari she began to wear after being mistaken for Indian. Because when I was a teenager I read about the statue of the little mermaid being built, in Copenhagen harbor, and I wanted to see it for myself.”

Helen Fagin (page 58)

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death./ There I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential – what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility…./ A knock at the door shattered our dream-world. As the class silently exited, a pale green-eyed girl turned to me with a tearful smile: ‘Thank you so very much for this journey into another world.’… / Of the twenty-two pupils in my secret school, only four survived the Holocaust./ The pale green-eyed girl was one of them. … / There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Alan Lightman (page 66)

“Keep in mind that information is not the same thing as knowledge. You still need to think about what you are learning and what it means. To do that, you will need to turn off your neurochip from time to time. It is valuable to connect to the world, and it is also valuable to disconnect and listen to your own mind think.”

There are many other inspirational letters in this interesting volume. If you get the chance, take a peek in this book (as well as many others).

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