My New Favorite Books, or, IT’S REESE’S PUFFS CEREAL!!!!!
When a politician changes their mind, they are labeled a “flip-flopper” and are thus incentivized to stick to their ideological guns, evidence and personal growth be damned. I, however, harbor no such limitations, and it is in this spirit of personal fluidity that I change my favorite things quite frequently. I recently discovered and read what is my current favorite book, and I have been dying to get the time to share it with you here.
It’s two books, actually. Two books, seemingly unrelated, but like peanut butter and chocolate, they combine two great flavors to create not just Candy for Breakfast, but Reese’s Puffs Cereal! Except for your brain’s taste buds. Or something.
Anyway. I will extricate myself from this sticky swirl of a digression and deliver to you a literary combination that the painfully hip employees at the University Bookstore seem to be unaware of, given their generally uninspired shelf of Staff Recommendations.
I can’t be too harsh, though. It’s rare to find a long collection of fictional stories like The Years of Rice and Salt that can pair so well with a dense, data-enriched non-fiction book like Guns, Germs, and Steel. But here are two book so grounded, yet so grand and ambitious, that they can’t help but enrich each other in fascinating ways.
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson is a book about what the world might have been like had the Bubonic Plague killed 95% of Christendom instead of 30%. It’s a collection of stories, arranged chronologically, of this alternate history. Tying them all together is a thread of reincarnation; the same characters are present throughout the book, and though the details of their traits, like gender, class, and even species, change, their spirits do not. One can follow these character threads by noting the first letters of each character’s name, as they remain the same throughout.
This is a brilliant literary device, as it allows Robinson to explore the infinite gradient of human experience while addressing the universality of human nature. This grounds the story, and is indeed its thesis– people are always the same, when the superficial trappings of culture are removed.
This is what I found so fascinating about The Years of Rice and Salt. By showing me, for example, a story about the Scientific Enlightenment occurring in Samarkand, instead of Europe, I was able to see that the way that people think is universal, that the excitement of the development of science requires nothing more than the curiosity inherent in us all.
But the great thing about The Years of Rice and Salt is that it doesn’t limit itself to just showing how science would have developed in this world, but also politics, war, religion, and even feminism. In concert, all of these facets work together to craft a beautiful, moving story that on more than one occasion brought tears to my eyes. Robinson understands, first and foremost, that people are what make the world beautiful, and that the juxtaposition of our cultural differences and our universal humanity is what gives the world texture.
But in reading The Years of Rice and Salt, the active, thoughtful reader will begin to wonder why exactly it took an imagined super-plague to upset the European hegemony that our world so markedly shows. If people are all the same, fundamentally, then why has there been an imbalance of power in the world as we know it? It was in pursuit of the answer to this question that led me to our second, non-fiction book, Guns, Germs, and Steel.
In this acclaimed book by biologist/anthropologist Jared Diamond, a thesis is laid out that attempts to describe why exactly certain civilizations progressed to a modern, first-world state, while others seem stuck in hunter-gatherer or subsistence farming states. This is, of course, a delicate subject, but Diamond handles it with the unbiased grace of a scientist, presenting data and evidence to back up his claim that the only thing differentiating the development of civilization is geographic location. It is a brilliant and enlightening read that taught me about about geography, evolution, meteorology, plant and animal domestication, and even Game Theory. The Years of Rice and Salt primed me for Diamond’s lessons, and I found myself drinking in his explanations and theories with a voracious appetite. Like Robinson’s novel, Guns, Germs, and Steel’s underlying pattern of thought is that people everywhere are just as capable and intelligent as everyone else. Indeed, Diamond points out, the fact that we can create massive metropolises and survive in the harshest of climates are both great indicators of our awesome ingenuity.
I honestly can’t recommend this pair of books enough. I’m certain that I will look back on the three week period I spent consuming these two tomes as one of the most intellectually influential times in my life. After reading The Years of Rice and Salt and Guns, Germs, and Steel, it felt like my eyes had been opened to the incredible beauty and wonder of people and our civilizations on our amazing planet, and I feel confident that you can have this awe-inspiring experience, too.