BOOK REVIEW: Humankind

Reviews, books

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.

Reading in lockdown: 5 hopeful books

books, Reviews, Thoughts

Reading has long been a pastime to help us get through times of crisis, whether personally or globally. Reading is also a great thing to do now that we have a bit more time on our hands! Sometimes, when this all gets a bit too much, a more hopeful read is better to turn to, so these are my top five (they are not in any particular order because I can’t decide which is better!) Each one is a reminder of how wonderful the world can be, some are novels, others poetry but each are hopeful and mostly escapist.

  1. How to Stop Time By Matt Haig.

Matt Haig is renowned for his writings around mental health and positivity. This book is one of his few fictional works which centres around a man who ages much slower than the average human being so has seen considerably more of the past. Haig takes the reader compellingly from the time of witch burnings to Shakespeare to the present day. If you are struggling during these times you may wish also to check out Notes on a Nervous planet (for anxiety) or Reasons to stay alive (for depression). We are all finding our way through these uncertain and changing times in different ways, and some are coping better than others. But know that you are not alone if you are struggling. Scarlett Curtis’ book ‘Its not okay to feel blue and other lies’ also might be useful.

2. The Lord of The Rings By J. R. R. Tolkien

A book centred around companionship and unity, as well as myth, wizards, elves and hobbits, Tolkien wrote the book based on his friendships as well as with his love of medieval mythology.

“The World is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater”

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

3. The Poetry Pharmacy, William Sieghart

Poetry is often a source of solace during difficult times, and through these books Sieghart seeks to console the emotions with a suitable poem. Simply flick to the feeling of your choosing and have a read. Emilia Clarke is also currently doing readings of these poems on her instagram, along with other actors such as Stephen Fry and Andrew Scott which you can check out to get a taster, and when you buy the book all profits go to her charity ‘Same You’.

4. A Pair of Silver Wings By James Holland

Sometimes a reminder of a past crisis that people got through can bring hope for current ones. This is a really endearing book about friendship and love during the war as well as focusing on some mental health issues.

5. Silas Marner by George Eliot

This is quite a short novel based around someone who feels like an outsider in a new town slowly learning how to love life again. It’s a lovely read that demands its reader to look for hope in new, simple places.

Other honourable mentions:

‘Inferno’ by Dan Brown. This may not be overly hopeful but it is topical. There have been a few religious conspiracy theories around this time about this being about the revelations coming true. This book subtly deals with that through the issue of human overpopulation. It is a really thought provoking book, you can read my review here. It isn’t one for escapism out of the issues we are having today, but if you fancy diving deeper into the implications of scientific discovery and disease this is a compelling fictionalisation of it.

Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley. This is one of my all time favourite books, it focuses around two characters mainly, Dr Victor Frankenstein and his creature, scrutinising what it means to be good or bad. Shelley brilliantly plays with the readers idea of what a monster is and how we define it. If you haven’t read it, it is a classic that is worth reading.

Poems you can read online:

Hope is the thing with feathers‘ by Emily Dickinson. A poem about hope as a bird coming and going that is always there even if you don’t notice it. This is a great poem for when hope is needed most.

This poem is interesting too although i’m not sure who the author is or where the source of this poem comes from.

Another book that sounds hopeful, as it is in the name, is Humankind: A hopeful history by Rutgar Bregman which is published tomorrow. I can’t wait to have a read and find out what it is like, apparently it’s a bit like ‘Sapiens’.

That was quite a lot more books than five but I hope at least one of them sparked your interest. This is a difficult time for people all over the world, but I hope you are well and finding ways to find some kind of normality. If there are any other books that have helped you to do so please let me know in the comments, I’d love to find more hopeful books to read!

  • If you are considering purchasing any books during lockdown and want to continue to support small hughstreet bookshops please consider buying them from Hive, an online retailer of books that supports small businesses.
  • For more on how books have helped in the past, this is a fascinating article from The Conversation about how books helped people keep calm during WW2.