Book review: ‘The World Until Yesterday' is an eye-opening cultural experience
"THE WORLD UNTIL YESTERDAY: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?" by Jared Diamond, Viking, $18, 499 pages (nf)
A group in Bolivia abandoned a sick middle-aged woman, deeming her too ill to take with them. Her husband didn’t even say goodbye. When she tried to follow, her infirm body gave out, and a few weeks later, only her bones could be seen, with her flesh having been eaten by ants and vultures.
In “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” author Jared Diamond does a remarkable job delving into life, death and the beliefs of little-known cultures in this stimulating read.
In most of the industrialized world, the thrill of dangerous situations is admired. In New Guinea, however, such a machoist attitude is totally unheard of. On these islands, native people do not consider seeking danger to be acts of courage. Children hunting with their fathers are encouraged to climb trees to safety, rather than put their lives in danger. During the evening, groups gather and recount stories about others who made unwise decisions, costing them their lives. In hunter-gatherer societies, caution is rewarded with longer lives and health, while daredevil attitudes can be met with injuries and death.
On the flip side of all this caution, many New Guinea parents allow their toddlers to play next to open fires. If the children are injured after falling into the flames, their burns are treated as necessary consequences. Across the globe, other children in Africa are allowed to play with, and even suck on, sharp knives. Obviously, danger can be seen quite differently depending on where one lives.
The economies, wars, nutrition and religions of different societies are also looked at in great detail in Diamond’s scintillating volume. In each instance, there is something to learn about how other cultures view life. While many of their traditions, such as infanticide, can horrify, practices such as healthy nutrition and community unity can inspire.
“The World Until Yesterday,” which was recently released in paperback, has clean language and no romance. Because the book deals with lifestyles of various cultures, it touches many aspects, including sex, violence, infanticide, murder and war. However, all the potentially difficult subjects are written in an educational manner rather than for shock or entertainment value.
Diamond's book "Guns, Germs and Steel" received a Pulitzer Prize.
If you go ...
What: Jared Diamond speaking
When: Thursday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m.
Where: Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City
Elizabeth Reid has bachelor degrees in economics and history. She has worked in retail, medical billing, catering, education and business fields. Her favorite occupation is that of wife and mother. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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