Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
608 pages / History and Anthropology / 4 out of 5 stars
I read Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies a few years ago and was captivated. I loved the way that Jared Diamond has of bringing history into focus. Diamond takes broad samplings of the past and puts them together like the pieces of a puzzle, so that the big picture is suddenly clear. I was particularly surprised to be so captivated by writing so organized and so methodical. Diamond lays out every step in answering every question leading up to his conclusions in such a way that I feel like I want the answers just as urgently as he does, and that I am willing to slog through just as much data, albeit vicariously, as he is. This same spirit pervaded my reading of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I have to admit, Collapse is a little slower than Guns, Germs, and Steel, and there seems to be a greater emphasis on slogging when moving through data, but the big picture is just as clear and satisfying in the end.
Whereas Guns, Germs, and Steel answers questions about why and how societies reached various benchmarks in the progress and advancement of civilization at different times, Collapse (as you might infer from the title) looks at what factors were involved in the collapse of past societies, examines how different factors affected different peoples, and concludes by cautioning the reader about these factors and their looming threat to our present-day global society. Although this tends to read at times like an environmental alarmist diatribe, Diamond is, as he puts it, a “cautious optimist,” believing that having identified the problem, or more accurately, the twelve major problems, that have undone societies in the past, we can now focus on solutions to avoid a similar outcome in our future.
The thing I like most about Diamond’s writing is his ability to articulate clear and direct questions to focus his research and respond to with his conclusions. As a junior high English teacher, I’m always looking for ways to help my kids learn to ask questions that will inspire them and motivate them to seek answers–and ask more questions. Even if a reader disagrees with Diamond’s conclusions, there is a lot to be learned from Diamond’s question and answer approach to research and writing.