Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond, 1997, 2003, 2005

Another classic I’d been meaning to read for years that the Nature and Environment book group tackled. It’s a great book, with one of the broadest sweeps of anything I’ve read except maybe A Brief History of Everything. Diamond succeeds admirably in what he sets out to do—illuminate why human development “proceed at such different rates on different continents”—and it’s one of the delights of the book to see how his particular background enables him to do it justice, from having a linguist and a doctor as parents, to being obsessed with birds, to spending years in New Guinea. As we discussed in the book group, though, the title is a bit of a misnomer since guns are made out of steel, and it omits the huge role played by animal and plants species which the book itself emphasizes. “Domesticated Species, Germs, and Guns” wouldn’t have the same ring though.

Things I learned: how recent many of our familiar diseases are (mumps 400 BCE, leprosy 200 BCE, polio 1940); the orientation of continental axes (east/west in Eurasia vs north/south in Africa and the Americas) makes a big difference to agricultural diffusion because of day length and temperature changes; how irregularly large-seeded grass species are distributed (32 species in the Mediterranean zone vs only 11 in all of the Americas).

On political leadership in small groups: “The chief may either combine the offices of political leader and priest in a single person, or may support a separate group of kleptocrats (that is, priests) whose function is to provide ideological justification for the chiefs.” It’s interesting and depressing that the non-food-producing specialists who develop as a consequence of food surplus always include kings and bureaucrats, and not just craftsmen and artists.

In a band, where everyone is closely related to everyone else, people related simultaneously to both quarreling parties step in to mediate quarrels. In a tribe, where many people are still close relatives and everyone at least knows everyone else by name, mutual relatives and mutual friends mediate the quarrel. But once the threshold of “several hundred” … has been crossed, increasing numbers of dyads become pairs of unrelated strangers. … [M]any onlookers will be friends or relatives of only one combatant and will side with that person, escalating the two-person fight into a general brawl. Hence a large society that continues to leave conflict resolution to all of its members is guaranteed to blow up. That factor alone would explain why societies of thousands can exist only if they develop centralized authority to monopolize force and resolve conflicts.

And yikes:

Even in democracies today, crucial knowledge is available to only a few individuals, who control the flow of information to the rest of the government and consequently control decisions. For instance, in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, information and discussions that determined whether nuclear war would engulf half a billion people were initially confined by President Kennedy to a ten-member executive committee of the National Security Council that he himself appointed; then he limited final decisions to a four-member group consisting of himself and three of his cabinet ministers.

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light – Paul Bogard, 2013

A local light pollution activist, James Lowenthal, requested that a Forbes book group read this. My Nature and Environment book group alternates between classics of nature writing, “issue books,” and cross-disciplinary works, so this seemed perfect as an issue book choice and we pushed The Selfish Gene to next year in order to read this one. It’s so well-written (I think–not everyone agreed!) and comprehensive that it verges into cross-disciplinary—way better than I expected. James and his wife came to the discussion and brought interesting brochures from the International Dark-Sky Association, and we discussed various local issues around street lighting (Northampton put in a lot of new LED lights that are terrible for glare and night vision). But we spent plenty of time talking about the book as well. It’s an elegy to so much that we’ve lost without even recognizing it.

When I think of how light pollution keeps us from knowing real darkness, real night, I think of Henry David Thoreau wondering in 1856, “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with?” He was writing about the woods around Walden Pond and how the “nobler” animals such as wolf and moose had been killed or scared away. “I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess,” he explained, “that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars.” Some 150 years later, this is exactly what we have allowed our lights to do. “I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth,” Thoreau concluded. Every time I read this I think, Me, too.

Bogard interviews François Jousse, a lighting architect in Paris, who describes his work:

“I want that the building says something with the light,” he explains. “But the speaking can be different. Maybe it’s an architectural speech, maybe it’s a historical speech, maybe it’s humorous. Sometimes the speech can be spiritual. Sometimes people say to me, But nobody will understand what the building says. And I say, It’s not a problem, the building says something and it’s beautiful because the building says something.”

Bonnie, who encourages other women to go out at night:

“It’s this manufactured fear that creates a perception that something bad is going to happen to you.” The reality, she says, is that as you sit at home watching TV “something bad is happening—you’re getting sick, and you’re missing out.”

…already in Australia they’re speaking of solastagia, about missing a loved place that still exists but to which the old birds and plants and animals no longer come. A word newly coined for our time, solastalgia combines the Latin word for comfort (solacium) and the Greek root meaning pain (algia) and differs from nostalgia in that it’s a yearning for a place you still inhabit rather than one you’ve left behind. It’s a word we’ll be hearing more often, for wherever we live, the climate has changed, or soon will. Next to my own death or that of my family this is the darkness I fear most, this sadness at the ongoing destruction of the wild world.

It’s a tremendously sad book in some ways, mourning the loss of what most people don’t even recognize we ever had, and yet light pollution is something, unlike climate change, which is instantly fixable and reversible. Turn off the lights, and the stars are still there in all their majesty. Not one iota has been truly lost.

The turning Earth, the presented universe—in the dry desert air the stars come down to the horizon, in the west blinking out as they fall from the world’s edge, and in the east blinking on, as though lit and set into the sky by some happy wild creatures just on the mountain’s other side.

Bogard briefly mentions the artist James Turrell (misspelled as “Terrell”), who’s building an installation near Flagstaff to facilitate the experience of “celestial vaulting,” where you feel like you’re falling into the stars. Earlier this summer I’d attended MassMOCA’s grand opening of the new Building 6, where a number of Turrell pieces are installed as “Into the Light.” They are great ways of experiencing dark adaptation, as you need to enter dark rooms and stay there until you can fully see the works.

At the very end, Bogard quotes Wendell Berry’s “To Know the Dark,” which also serves as the epigraph:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Usually you have to flip back to the front of the book to check the epigraph, and it’s easy to forget. I love the book-ending here. One of my favorite books I’ve read this year!

July 2017 – to be linked

I was talking to Jonathan about my pattern with this blog since its inception: I really enjoy having written each post, but don’t get to it very often because it takes time and energy, and then the books pile up physically and psychically because I impractically think I’ll do each one. He suggested that I just do the ones I actually get to, which I’ve attempted before. But starting in 2016, while my blogs were down, I started just a running list and that was satisfying in its own way. So my compromise idea is to make a list and link in the posts if I actually write them.

  • The Sea-Gull – Anton Chekhov, 1895 – in preparation for seeing Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird at Silverthorne, which was great!
  • Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance, 2016
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter Miller Jr., 1960
  • How to Become a Straight-A Student – Cal Newport, 2006
  • The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes, 2016
  • The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light – Paul Bogard, 2013
  • Père Goriot– Honoré de Balzac, 1835
  • The Immaterial Murder Case – Julian Symons, 1945
  • Emily Dickinson Is Dead – Jane Langton, 1984
  • J’irai cracher sur vos tombes – Boris Vian (as Vernon Sullivan), 1946
  • And Five Were Foolish – Dornford Yates, 1924
  • As Other Men Are – Dornford Yates, 1925
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport, 2016