Back in December 2016 I was in a bookstore browsing the non-fiction section when I spotted Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. I spent that Christmas reading the book cover to cover and spent my summer vacation in 2017 reading his second book: “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”. Whenever someone asks me what non-fiction books I recommend, I always say these two - they’re in a low minority of non-fiction books that have ‘stayed with me’ and I reference them quite a lot. These books truly changed my understanding of human existence and 1.5 years later, I still find myself thinking about much of what is written in them.
It’s interesting to me that Yuval Noah Harari was an unknown history professor in Israel who managed to do what many historians have tried before him – create a new and unique view on the human race – but somehow, he managed to do it. His book was launched into fame by recommendations from the likes of Bill Gates and President Obama. By 2017 anyone who had read ‘Sapiens’ was left with a whole new perspective on life’s meaning. Do you know how many historians have tried to do that? A lot. But I can’t name one, except Harari.
The first book packs 70’000 years of history into around 400 pages and comprehensively explores everything from biology, justice, anthropology and philosophy. I’m probably making it sound like a snooze fest, but it’s really not and that’s the beauty of it. ‘General’ history books can often be too over-simplified, but Harari manages to give in-depth analysis, whilst avoiding being ‘too heavy’. Remember, this book has been touted as one of the best books of this millennia and I can’t agree more.
‘Sapiens’ takes us through the three major revolutions in human history: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution, and leaves us with a better understanding on how we came to be as ‘powerful’ as we are. It leaves us questioning so much of what we thought we knew and leaves you in deep thought after every chapter.
One of the topics he raises that has stayed to me is about money. Money is the one thing that we globally trust but is also something with zero meaning. Let’s imagine us in an apocalypse… what purpose would money serve? We can eat it, we can use it as fuel, and we can’t use it as shelter. Harari talks us through that a little more eloquently, but you get the idea.
During his chapters on the cognitive revolution, he talks about how our ‘minds’ have played a massive role in the way we live now. Humans began telling stories and shared ideas and myths. These stories and myths (religions, ideologies) facilitated cooperation and led to the creation of ideas such as fairness and justice, which were essential for cooperation between larger groups.
‘Homo Deus’ comes as Harari’s second book and takes a look at how he foresees the future of humanity in a data-driven world. We are at the very beginning of our transformation to a data-driven world and Harari writes that there is very little we can do to stop it. ‘Homo Dues’ feels very much like an “end of history” book and I don’t mean this in an ‘Armageddon’ sense. The book gives us a realisation that things are moving so fast and it’s became impossible for us to imagine what the future holds. In the 1800s it was possible to imagine with meaningfulness about the world in the 1900s and how it may look. That’s what history is: a series or sequence of events that humanity plays a part in. Now let’s, in the year 2018, imagine what 2100 will look like… it’s almost unimaginable – we have no understanding of where we will fit in, if at all. Harari asks us the question: are we building a world that no longer has a place for us?
It probably all sounds a bit doom and gloom considering I’m supposed to be recommending these books, but they are intelligently written, full of sharp insight and caustic wit. I found the books deeply appealing and thought-provoking, but admit that not everyone may think so, but I challenge anyone to read these books and not get at least an occasional momentous thrill.
If you’re interested, his new book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” comes out on August 30th (at least in the UK) – I’ve already got my pre-order in.
Have you read the books? I’d love your thoughts.