Friday, May 24, 2024

The 8 best science books to read or give away during the holidays

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by Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, first published in 2014, told the story of humanity as the invention of ever more complex fictions. The product of these fictions – what we might call progress – was not necessarily of net benefit to humans. It took us away from our happiness and, possibly, our destruction as a species. This rather grim reading of history transformed Harari from a little-known history teacher into an apostle who sheds light on who we were and who we will become. Harari now boasts millions of champions, including Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as a handful of follow-up bestsellers and a company that promotes solutions to the challenges identified by its book.

Somehow, I had missed this phenomenon. OK, not entirely. Once a few years ago I tried the audiobook edition of Sapiens on a long journey. I did this about 10 minutes before moving on to Fresh air. The big story, as the Harari Discipline is often called, was too big a scale for this distracted driver. Too many details, too many themes to think about.

But here we are again. Sapiens has been reissued, this time in a bright and very accessible graphic novel form. It’s the same great meditation on human knowledge and taxonomy, but more digestible. Fun. Joke on it. Colored. The illustrators in Harari have taken liberties with their source material, which is a good thing. They use the form to the fullest. It’s full of situational comedy: an audience drama, a rowdy at an anthropology conference, a hunter-gatherer reality show. Harari appears as a charismatic illustrated narrator. And everything related to it – the bizarre situations, the visual aids – allows you to get into an idea or a concept and meditate on it for a moment, internalize it. There are risks in illustrating a narrative that paints the story in broad strokes – that the characters become caricatures, that the scientific evidence quickly becomes eluded (an accusation already made by many scholars about Harari’s original text). Is this the simple version? Probably. If I had a child, I would read it to them and challenge them to manipulate the anatomically correct illustrations of the broad genus Homo. But I don’t have kids and I always have fun. —Gregory Barber


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