I first heard about best-selling author Jared Diamond and his newly released The World Until Yesterday – What we can Learn from Traditional Societies in an in-flight magazine. In the middle of one night, lagjettedly discombobulated, I drunkenly placed hold number 81 at our library. I must have waited months to read this book. It sure does take time for 80 readers to get through a 500 page book. Then, like an oasis in the desert, I noticed the familiar golden foil lettering glimmering on the library’s featured titles display. I seized the copy, knowing that featured titles cannot be renewed. Still, I willingly accepted to jump approximately 71 spots in the hold line.
With great interest, I started reading this book of anthropological observations about what western societies can learn from traditional ones on subjects as diverse as childbirth, multi-age playgroups, growing old, getting fat or welcoming strangers. Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA, draws from years of studying New Guinea’s culture and practices to remind today’s reader that modernity isn’t the only way forward. He hasn’t studied every society and cannot afford, even in 500 pages, to dig into each topic fully, so obviously the reader is invited to take his remarks for what they are: the author’s own observations and selection. Still, The World Until Yesterday is a compilation of well-researched case studies about the most odd, brilliant and fascinating practices of today and yesterday. I see great value in books like this. In many ways, it is a Third Culture Kid book in how it allows beliefs, traditions and practices from around the world to permeate our lifestyle and question the status quo. Given 20 more years to study societies around the world and objectify my own experiences, I would love to write a book like this!
Before you get all skeptical on me – not all practices are condoned in the book. Take the Piraha Indians of Brazil, who give birth unassisted as a sign of strength. Diamond recounts the story of a woman trying to give birth solo to a breech baby on a beach, within earshot of her tribe. Her cries intensify before weakening and is left to die along with her infant in childbirth. On a more positive note, Diamond later touches on multilingualism throughout history and even “crib bilingualism”. He debunks myths of linguistic delay or confusion by shedding light on the fears and suspicions that both the United States as a whole and immigrant parents alike once showed towards this practice.
I regrettably have to return my copy to the library today. As you might know, life can be busy with a one year old. Also, when I get the chance to read, late at night with eyelids slowing down the process, I am not exactly the world’s fastest reader. So, I caved in and ordered my own copy on Amazon so I can plaster post-it notes all over the sections on diet and sloth, child-rearing and the value of minority languages. There is that much to learn from societies around the world.