That sage advice was brought home to me when I finally got round to reading Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday.
Like the several commentators on PNG Attitude, I added my tuppence worth of criticism based on reviews of the book and a few articles on the net questioning his sources. One of the latter pieces was particularly virulent and I should have picked it up then.
What we commentators blithely did was accept the view that the book was (a) pop-anthropology at its worst and (b) full of inaccuracies about some of the more apparently sordid attributes of past and present customary practises in Papua New Guinea.
The book, in fact, is neither of these things.
What it is is a summary of well-known anthropological and other data sprinkled with a collection of Diamond’s personal anecdotes in a way which contrasts modern western societies with past and present traditional societies in several parts of the world, including Papua New Guinea, in an attempt to extract any useful wisdom and practises.
It is a long and fuzzy book which is poorly referenced and Diamond fails to make any real headway. If he does it is buried among all the tangents that he embarks on and is not clear at all.
He also gets bogged down in superfluous detail which eventually buries his central theme that we can learn useful things from hunters and gatherers. I think that at the end of the book the reader might still be puzzled about this point.
With regard to point (a), it is not pop-anthropology, as I claimed, but merely popular anthropology. That is, Diamond has taken anthropological research, some of it very old and dated, and stripped it of its academic jargon and obfuscation to render it readable and comprehensible to the ordinary reader.
This in itself is a laudable thing. Anthropologists, sociologists, historians and the like specialise in taking the obvious and dressing it up in language that sounds profound and new. On top of that they write mainly for each other, so none of it filters down to us mere mortals.
Diamond has provided a useful service in translating the gibberish into plain speak. There should be more of it.
People are obviously interested because the book has been sitting comfortably in the middle of the best seller lists for a couple of weeks now; the paperback is even on Big W’s bookshelves among all the turgid crime and romance novels, including, I notice, a growing block of soft core erotica for women. It looks quite out of place.
I dabble in anthropology and I must admit that I didn’t learn anything new by reading the book. I did stumble across some questionable interpretations and generalisations, some of which have been put to bed quite a long time ago. All in all though, it is all quite innocent.
As for point (b), the so-called sensational and derogatory stuff about Papua New Guinean society is just that; except it’s not Diamond doing the sensationalising but the media.
The stuff about strangling widows among the Kaulong people on New Ireland is there but it is made plain that it was a very old and now obsolete custom.
Diamond uses it to make the point that customs reach a point where there original practicality becomes lost in time and the continuance makes no sense.
The fact that a widow insisted on being strangled upon the death of her husband as late as 1957 is used by Diamond to illustrate the longevity but irrelevance of some customs.
Papua New Guinea, in fact, gets a pretty good wrap in the book. Diamond has obviously caught the bug and is clearly very fond of the place and its people and this is shown repeatedly in the text.
I suppose, to quote another old adage, ‘any publicity is better than no publicity’ so Diamond probably doesn’t really mind the sensationalism because it makes people buy the book.
Then again, he’s an old bloke and the money might not matter as much as the message. Either way, it all helps to get it out there.
So if you believe the best seller lists Australians are buying the book and learning something about Papua New Guinea. That can’t be a bad thing I reckon.
It hasn’t gone on my bookshelves but sits in the cardboard box in the shed that I deliver to the local second-hand bookshop every few months - an interesting read but by no means earth-shattering or eye-opening as the cover blurb claims.