21 Lessons for the 21st Century [Yuval Noah Harari]

Start Date: 2019-03-06

Finish Date: 2019-03-14

Source: Brooklyn Public Library

Goodreads link.


I read this book mostly on the fervent recommendations of my parents, who became fervent Harari fans after reading Sapiens. From whatever I had read about Sapiens or Harari, I wasn’t extremely impressed – it seemed that his whole deal of “Religion / money / liberalism / X for a value of X is a human-created fairytale” seemed to be something which Terry Pratchett had already said, but more concisely and heartwarmingly; and I didn’t know if I wanted to subject myself to YNH’s doorstopper to read something Pratchett had already said better.

However, things had reached a point where my parents reference Harari so much, that I took up this book just to ensure that when we talked, I was on the same page as them. Fortunately, this book is lighter and shorter than Sapiens, so I could get through it quickly. It was still a disappointment, though, on different fronts.

The first front is that it seems inconsistent. After spending the first section agonising about whether the future of AI and other cutting edge technologies will make human social structures and even biological structures irrelevant this century; the following sections just sort of ignore the possibilities Harari spelt out, and talk about the problems that will arise in a Business as Usual scenario; without alluding to the possibility of those radical changes making them irrelevant. It seems as though Harari just pulled unconnected essays together for this collection; instead of having a running thought process through the book.

The second disappointment is how shallow the book is – it barely cites any original research, and when you examine the footnotes and references, they are all to other articles by generalists or popular books. It’s probably a great book for school students or undergrads or people who don’t get the time to read any other longform press or books – but it’s a disappointment for anybody who does read widely. That was a preconceived notion I had about YNH, and this book didn’t contradict it.

The last notable thing is that I was wrong about assuming that YNH is a verbose and less funny Pratchett. There’s a subtle difference, in my opinion, that I only discovered after reading this book. Pratchett believes that all virtues, values, and beliefs are things that humans have constructed for themselves, with very little objective reality; and that we should be overjoyed at our capacity for narrative; and to keep spinning stories better and better. Harari believes the same, but his conclusion is different – he concludes that we are suffering from horrific delusion and we need to train ourselves to break the hold that narrative has over our psyches.

Which one is right? I don’t really know, though I’m more sympathetic to Pratchett on this – but that may be because he’s a far better writer. I’m reminded of the Existential Comics strip about Hume and the Buddha – though in that I sided more with the Buddha; but Harari seems to parallel the Buddha while Pratchett seems to parallel Hume. An interesting contradiction there.

All in all, this was not a book for me, and I am reluctant to suggest it to others; considering that a mix of Pratchett and Buddhist literature might accomplish the best of both worlds.


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