The History of Mapmaking, Jared Diamond’s Latest and More Recent Books Reviewed

Also on the docket, travelling by fire and understanding the concept of “antifragility”

The World Until Yesterday Courtesy The Viking Press

The World Until Yesterday
by Jared Diamond
The author of the prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel is no stranger to sweeping assessments. Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, is a macro examination of what Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic societies (WEIRD is Diamond’s handy, oft-repeated acronym) lack compared with traditional societies. His argument is presented as a series of studies grouped around themes—child care or diet, for example. How does our infant care compare with that of the !Kung of Botswana, whose babies spend 90 percent of their first years in skin-to-skin contact with their mothers? The constant proximity, Diamond writes, may contribute to the infants’ relatively advanced early neuromotor development. Or how does Western salt consumption stack up? Consider Brazil’s heart-healthy Yanomamo Indians, whose daily salt excretion is about one two-hundredth of the average American’s. The Yanomamos’ average blood pressure, Diamond notes, is 96 over 61—compared with the average American’s: 120 over 80. The book is most intriguing when it explores these little-known civilizations, but readers must also endure long stretches of exposition: three full pages on the definition of war, a chart of 16 definitions of religion, or an analysis of the “three inherent advantages of state justice.” And Diamond’s obsession with clarity can read as plodding forthrightness: “I’ll conclude this discussion” and “this chapter will serve” are regular refrains. It is a shame that there is so much of this well-intentioned dullness. If Diamond had stripped it down, he would have produced a compelling, clear-eyed book, animated by years of deeply personal experience among some of the most distinct people on earth. “Many of my New Guinean friends,” Diamond writes casually in a throwaway line, “have described to me their participation in genocidal attacks.” Excuse me? Tell me more! (Just no more lists, please.)

On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks
by Simon Garfield
In his introduction, the author writes that his book can be read as a “journey around an exhibition.” This is an apt way to invite the reader in: The book is beautifully illustrated with maps and drawings from throughout the ages. But more substantively, like a masterful exhibition, On the Map ranges widely and unabashedly, letting its enormous subject—the history of mapmaking—pull Garfield every which direction. We start in Facebook’s offices, where a web of gossamer strands maps all its users’ connections; slink into the dank corridors of the Hereford Cathedral, where the 13th-century Mappa Mundi hung unnoted for years; and steal aboard the ships of the 19th-century adventurers living out the dreams of Treasure Island. There are also digressions that wander into dragons (specifically, what they meant on maps), J.M. Barrie’s map-folding frustrations and the role of maps in movies. (How would a character ever get from A to B without that little dotted line jogging across the continents?) This is a truly eclectic book, but the varied nature of its parts does not make it a slight one. Garfield is a wonderful writer who deploys suspense to excellent effect, making each chapter read like a delightful short story or mini-mystery; what might appear a dusty subject sparkles under his clear-eyed and witty writing. (He did the same with a previous book on fonts, Just My Type.) At the end, a book that is purportedly a history of a visual record seems more like a history of the way we have thought about the world—the fears contained in dark corners, the tantalizing tease of unmarked stretches and the dear details of the places we call home. Garfield may be interested in surfaces, but his book speaks of vast, hidden depths.

Heat: Adventures in the World’s Fiery Places
by Bill Streever
At the start of Bill Streever’s last book, Cold, he plunged into Arctic waters wearing nothing but his swim trunks. To kick off Heat, he ventures into Death Valley with an unwisely limited supply of water, visits the forest-fire-charred landscape surrounding Santa Barbara, California, and digs around the Iron Age villages near abandoned peat mines in the Netherlands to get acquainted with the now-outdated fuel. Streever’s book is rangy and free-form, with chapters based on uses and abuses for heat, but he threads some compelling plots through his lanky narrative: Will he walk on fire—and what will it feel like if he does? Will the painfully burned firefighter survive? Evocative scientific explanations also punctuate his exploits: Heat forces “cellulose molecules to dance,” he writes to explain the chemistry behind a wood fire, “two oxygen intercept the carbon, and the three parts join to become carbon dioxide....The dance floor rocks.” A biologist based in frosty Anchorage, Streever is a somewhat unlikely ambassador to the upper reaches of the thermometer, but he clearly has an affinity for extremes and a gutsy, undaunted spirit that enlivens both his inquiries and his writing.

Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
When trader-turned-philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan was published in 2007, the New York Times deemed it a book about “the hubris of predictions—and our perpetual surprise when the not-predicted happens.” Just months later, when financial shocks began to rattle economies across the globe, Taleb’s book took on a prophetic aura and became a best seller. Taleb is now back with what he calls “the last step” of the philosophy he proposed in The Black Swan. Antifragile is Taleb’s guide to living in “a world we don’t understand” by embracing the concept of “antifragile.” “Antifragility,” Taleb writes, “is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” There are many twists and turns to Taleb’s explanation, but, essentially, if something is antifragile, you can beat it up and bat it around, and it will come out better for it. Not exactly an entirely new concept (“what doesn’t kill you...”), but Taleb takes his argument to some unexpected places. Consider twin brothers, one working at a large bank, the other a taxi driver. The bank employee has predictably taken home a large salary; the taxi driver’s pay has been much spottier. But when the bank fails and the 50-something twin loses his job, he faces long odds of finding a new one. Taxi-driver twin, on the other hand, provides a useful and variable service. He is antifragile. Taleb is at his best explaining scenarios such as these. But you’ll also have to wade through his profound antipathy for “bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of the IAND (International Association of Name Droppers) and academics.” Such name-calling and finger-pointing give his book a catty, bitter tone. Taleb has been commended for his acuity in the run-up to the financial crisis; perhaps he will be vindicated here as well. I, for one, will be impressed with anyone who can get past his brash, dismissive personality to the sometimes compelling ideas and theories underneath.