Sunday, March 22, 2009

#55 - "Everyday Survival" by Laurence Gonzales

Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things (2008) by Laurence Gonzales was one of those books that was popping up everywhere I went. As a "featured title" at the library, I was constantly spying it as I walked in and out on my daily trek for a reliable internet connection. And then when I went to The Tattered Cover bookstore, and I saw it there too. In the end, I think it was the positive blurbs written about Deep Survival, Gonzales's other book, but trickily printed on the back of Everyday Survival that made me pick it up. It's too bad because Deep Survival might have been a better and more enjoyable book for me to read.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I started Everyday Survival, but I quickly became excited by Gonzales's premise. Gonzales appeared to be looking at the way humans think about the world and arguing that we need broad interests and an appetite for learning and expanding our minds. And I was completely on board. I love learning, and I find it kind of disturbing (especially now that my computer has been made useless by an evil virus) that I am wholly dependent on so many things, and I have no idea how any of them work. I understand that specialization is efficient, but when it comes to my ability to do basic, practical things, I can be pretty helpless. And Gonzales added to this with interesting, anecdotal tales including one about some people's reaction to the recent, devastating Tsunami where people in their "vacation state" of mind did not even think to be concerned by the rising water until it started carrying them away. Sometimes I felt like he was stretching these anecdotes a bit to prove his point, but it was all certainly interesting.

But then Gonzales started talking about the origins of mankind, the meaning of life, the second rule of thermodynamics, entropy, his travels, and global warming. It felt unfocused and scattered and I lost some interest. I think Gonzales was trying to give people a better understanding of our world and our place in it by giving us background on the origins of the world, mankind, how we think, and the role we play in it. And once he made us understand how insignificant we are and our place in the universe, we could think differently about our role in global warming and whether we really can rise above our petty concerns and evolutionary tendencies and do something to make a difference.

It's a grand, ambitious scheme that I like in theory, but it didn't work for me. Maybe part of the problem is I was expecting something different. I mean, the subtitle is: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things. So, a dire treatise on global warming or a scientific education on the meaning of life was a little surprising. But also, I didn't find him convincing. Many of his stories and explanations did not prove his point and I was constantly wondering where he was going or what he was trying to show. All in all, I came away disappointed.

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