There are almost no words to describe the earth-shattering work of Yuval Noah Harari. Since its English release in 2014, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind has left no reader indifferent – it has been continually acclaimed or criticized the world over. Of course, a non-fiction book of this sweeping scope is bound to scratch at some painful scabs we as a society strive to forget. In a mere 400 pages, Harari simplifies and brilliantly explains the approximately two millions years it took for humankind – most importantly Homo Sapiens – to arrive where we are now. Readers are in for a rollercoaster of emotions, surprises, stunning twists in history and an impeccable lesson on our own intimate history.
It is necessary to state that, for obvious reasons, summing up over two million years in 400 pages is quite a feat of concision. The opinionated, well-educated, ‘intelligent’ and passionately critical reader might pout at the over-simplification of mankind’s history. To the others plunging into the book with an open mind, however, Sapiens can begin to answer the countless questions we didn’t even know we had. What was Homo Sapiens’ effect on the planet long before climate change and the modern era? How many human species were there? Why aren’t they with us anymore? What is the causality behind our present society? Never mind, the list goes on… And the further one dives into the book, the more questions arise. Be warned, closing this book is not a relief, nor does it reveal the all-encompassing truth of the universe, far from it. The reader is left with a throbbing heart-ache and must stare into emptiness for several hours before returning to reality.
With ease, Harari connects the important dots of human history and creates a tapestry simple enough for basically any person who can add 1+1 to understand. The rules to embarking on the Sapiens journey; No prerequisite knowledge is needed; Interesting examples and backstories are provided; The reader must only bring his eyes and curiosity to enjoy the trip; Have fun.
There. That’s it. Read the book and be done with all the questions wracking your mind about the purpose of mankind, why we are sociable, loving creatures who relish violence, how our imagined constructs rule our lives… Tired of feeling ignorant at the dinner table? Tired of Googling ‘why did Man invent money?’? Then Sapiens is for you! Amaze your family with anecdotes about the role of myths in our present society, the first appearance of the written word or coins, the reason we indulge in sweets whenever we can!
In all seriousness, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, immediately became a worldwide bestseller and favorite coffee-table/gift/commute book. In years to come, if it hasn’t already started, there is no doubt that Harari’s staggering work will become a must-read for high-school students around the world…
Beat them to it. Read it.
1. The simplicity of the language makes the reading enjoyable and fast-paced. Harari is not only a historian, but a talented writer (even though he wrote the original in Hebrew – see below). Those who count themselves amongst the thousands to have started A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and never finished it, fear not! Harari weaves a gripping tale with revelations around every corner. Sapiens is as hard to put down as any mass-market thriller.
2. Without a doubt, the scope is impressive and, though this is not verified, probably unique in the world of historical writing. From the origins of mankind to the present day, Harari manages to integrate almost every important aspect of our common history, religions, economy, shared constructs and much more… Never does the work feel overwhelming, battering us with wave after wave of historical facts and statistics. On the contrary, every word in Sapiens is meant to be there and has its rightful place.
3. Throughout the work, the reader will be fed a large amount of information and data ranging from history to mathematics to theology. No matter what the current topic is, the reader doesn’t feel lost and there is absolutely no need to be an economics expert to understand the rise of capitalism, just as there is no need to be a devout religious person to comprehend the implications of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism or even Manichaeism. Sapiens is a work to be read without fear of feeling ignorant or having to look up words every few pages.
4. One of the main qualities of Harari’s writing is that it is scattered with strong examples, metaphors and comparisons to help with understanding. Most examples are well-chosen and make it so that his statements don’t require researching extra information elsewhere. From time to time, the author dives into whimsical scenarios that could have happened thousands of years ago. Certainly, the Neanderthals weren’t named John and Lucy and Tom, and all of these reconstitutions are entirely imagined, but their purpose is fulfilled in making for interesting glimpses into the past.
5. Finally, as simplified as Sapiens may be in order to reach out to vast audience, one never feels ridiculous reading it. Perhaps a tenured professor in History at an Ivy League University may scoff at the terminology employed and qualify Sapiens as a spoon-feeding hunk of garbage designed to pique the common man’s curiosity, that is true. But in general, the reader doesn’t feel like a brainless silk-worm being taught sign language. Harari has made his work engaging and respectful of his audience and it never feels over-simplified.
1. This issue may depend on edition or version of Sapiens (we read it as an e-book), but the translation and edition aren’t entirely top-notch. There are some grammar mistakes (perhaps due to the translation) and some editing errors scattered throughout the work. This is far from problematic and only catches the eye occasionally, but it is surprising for a book of such importance and success to have a botched editing and translation job. We are certain that the Hebrew version (as any work in its original language should be) is excellent.
2. There is a main and crucial warning to be issued to any and all potential readers of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari issues it repeatedly throughout the book which is completely understandable. The history of humankind vastly shifts and changes depending on who is telling it or, as Winston Churchill put it, ‘History is written by the victors.’ Harari, as a historian, manages to maintain his objectivity whenever a touchy event in history is explained. Close-minded and stubborn readers are advised to do the same… Yes, humans evolved from apes. No, Adam and Eve are nowhere to be seen in this work. Yes, Homo Sapiens committed more genocides and caused more extinctions than we can count. Until proven otherwise, biologically speaking the soul is a non-existent human creation and mythological attempt to explain our purpose on Earth. Yes, we are living in a mainly Occidental materialistic capitalist social construct. Etc, etc. If one feels that they aren’t ready to hear an objective truth based on extensive research and mounds of data, then Sapiens probably isn’t for them. For all you other curious and free minded Homo Sapiens, dig in and remember to stare into space for the hours following finishing this book.