Some of you may be familiar with the book Guns, Germs, and Steel. It has been recommended to me by several people who I trust and who have decent judgment. It is a monster of a work, in a style that the specialists of modern day can’t really match. It’s meant to be a broad analysis of general historical trends, chronicling some ideas of why modern society developed in the place and manner that it did. And I’m sure it accomplishes this well and was interesting and informative for many highly intelligent people. But I couldn’t read it.
I am not typically a non-fiction reader. I like the flexibility of fiction. I feel like it allows language to be used more fully. I feel like it’s more of an art. But of course, that’s not always the case. And some fiction pays no attention to language or craft. Ultimately however, I tend to like it better for its hint of truth. Fiction can be truer than fact. It can also be a starting point for factual exploration. How many times have I been reading some historical novel and wondered if an event or situation actually took place? The interaction between creative expression and factual dates, times, and places intrigues me. In addition, fiction avoids the perils of being proven wrong.
So, was it just the non-fiction structure of this particular book, in addition to its length, that put me off reading the whole thing? Not exactly. I mean, the small part of it that I did read was well-written. However, amidst the sweeping generalizations of the early introductory materials, I found the bane of a non-fiction books – a fallacy. While I can understand discrepancies regarding the movement of people into North America considering new information that is constantly being revealed and tested, other small details I could not ignore. Where was steel first invented? And if the author is wrong about one such detail, how can I trust the other assertions that are outside his specialty?
I eventually gave up on reading the book – it would take too long to check every point he made. however, the book again caught my eye on the train today when I saw a picture of the Phaistos disc inside it. I saw the picture first – recognizing one of the most interesting and rare undeciphered scripts in existence, I was intrigued enough to lean over the poor girl reading it and look at the book title. For those of you who are not familiar with this disc, it is the only example of what we think is a writing system (or at least some record-keeping system using characters for a discrete meaning). We don’t know what language it may record, or what culture it is associated with, though there have been multiple guesses. Since the disc was found in a Minoan palace, many think it originated there, but we have no evidence that it was not made elsewhere. What could such an enigmatic relic of past civilization have to tell us about the advancement of current people through guns, germs, and steel? Not much. And the sensational nature of such a mysterious object included in what’s supposed to be a highly logical argument of a book does little to placate my questions about the authorial intent or accuracy of the book. However, since I did not actually read the text associated with the disc, I cannot say that it does not add another layer of meaning to teh author’s argument. I will have to be resigned to my unanswered questions and doubts.