I love this quote by Richard Curtis. It’s true that we only hear about the exceptional so when an unexceptional thing occurs in front of our eyes we don’t believe it.
I started writing this post when it was first published as I devoured it within a week, it was so compellingly written and its ideas different from anything I had read before about the history of humankind. I had to quickly get down my first thoughts about it upon completing reading – my initial thought being ‘who can I share this book with? I need someone to talk about these ideas with!’ For some reason, I didn’t publish that review (what a bad publisher I am!), but despite this review going up a few months after finishing it I felt like it was still a book I had to write about and share my views on because more people need to read this book – its the other side of the argument about humankind, the hopeful version of it, dismissing the modern western Hobbesian idea that humans are born selfish and shedding different, rarely shown, lights on our history.
So. Whats it about?
Humankind: A Hopeful History is a Non-fiction book written by Danish Historian, journalist and Author, Rutger Bregman. I had heard of Bregman when watching his TED talk on Poverty. I found his speech style compelling, some of his points interesting but his argument lacking on a couple of points. It was persuasive but by the end I found myself asking ‘but what about…?’ and ‘why wasn’t… considered?’ Nevertheless when I saw that this book was being published by Bloomsbury in the UK this June (2020) I was intrigued as the premise seemed to be what I was searching for in my next read- something to challenge ‘well known’ interpretations of the past and to be readable -not full of academia jargon like many history, or any ‘professional’ books, are. I’m pleased to say that it exceeded those expectations.
The book spans many different parts of human history. Beginning with the origins of civilisation, about how we became ‘civilised’ and stopped being hunter-gatherers and moves on to looking at modern day tribes, analysing WW2, and finding parts of the past not frequently reported on. The biggest of these being the ‘ Real Lord Of the Flies’, which is being made into a movie soon (you know a book must be good when a film is being made from just one short chapter!) For years, William Golding’s book has provided a blueprint into how we treat people, being used as evidence for our government and how children should be educated. As a non fiction book, there are no real ‘spoilers’, either Bregman convinces you or he doesn’t with his fresh take on history but it is interlaced with stories of its own kind that you might find surprising. The variety in topics covered in this book will mean it will appeal to a variety of readers; whether your’e interested in the history of science, psychology, true crime or literature, this book will give you a new hopeful side to the stories you might have already heard of and some you might not.
Bregman covers a variety of ideas thinking about how history is shaped, about how our current knowledge came to be, about the news and the implications of ‘fake news’ too. As a former journalist himself, it’s fascinating to see reporting and the news through the lens of someone who has worked in it and also seeing someones quest to find truth through all the speculation and coating of the past. It’s also interesting finding out more about how the past and our interpretations of it has shaped us as a species. I also found the research about placebos and nocebos particularly compelling (but youll have to read the book to find out more about that!)
‘Humankind’ & ‘Quiet’:
I read this book alongside Susan Cain’s bestseller ‘Quiet’, a book arguing that introversion and extroversion should be qualities respected equally. This book deserves its own post but it was fascinating reading these two side by side. Bregman focuses occasionally on ideas Cain focuses on in her book, particularly with thinking about psychological experiments and thinking about how we view an ideal self. Cain said of Humankind that ‘Bregman’s application of history leads to a new understanding of human nature.’ it ‘changes the conversation and lights the path to a brighter future. We need it now more than ever’. A statement I can absolutely agree with, in times of rapid change and uncertainty we need to be reminded that we actually might not be born with self centred wired brains, that at the end of the day, we might actually be a species that wants to help each other out. It just so happens that there are a select few who’d rather not, and some that are too easily swayed.
Overall, this book was compelling and thought-provoking, an essential in these times of uncertainty to know that hope isn’t futile. As the epigraph from Chekhov says ‘man will become better when you show him what he is like’ and this book shows us the other side of the coin when it comes to human nature, so read this to better understand what we, us humans, are truly like so that maybe we can be better towards each-other.