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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Jared Diamond
Penguin Group USA Inc., 2004
592 pp., 29.95

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State of Fear
State of Fear
Michael Crichton
Harper Collins, 2004
624 pp., 27.95

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John Wilson


Longtime readers may recall the interview with Jared Diamond that appeared in our May/June 1999 issue ["Continental Gifts," interview by Karl Giberson and Donald Yerxa] and Don Yerxa's review of Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gun, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, in the same issue (under the "History Wars" rubric). A handful of readers may even remember the Books & Culture Corner piece from the following year in which I took a critical look at Diamond's contribution to the 100th anniversary issue of Natural History magazine [www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/151/11.0.html]. Recalling or revisiting these pieces, you may rightly conclude, first, that Diamond is worth reading and, second, that when you're reading him it's wise to have a large salt shaker close at hand.

Diamond is back with a new book that commands attention: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking). In it, he considers various societies that have suffered calamitous collapse at least in part as a result of their response to environmental problems; among his many examples are the Maya, the Anasazi, Easter Island, and Norse Greenland. He gives some attention, though not nearly as much, to successful counterexamples before turning to modern societies; he treats the genocide in Rwanda, for example, as an instance of "Malthus in Africa," driven primarily by high population density and an acute shortage of land. His overarching argument, however, bears not on any particular modern society but on what he regards as a worldwide environmental crisis that must be faced if we hope to avoid the outcome of those admonitory case studies.

The journals Nature (January 6, 2005) and Science (January 7, 2005) published rave reviews of Diamond's book. Science's reviewer, Tim Flannery, concluded thus: "It is probably the most important book you will ever read." Neither reviewer raises even a single point of criticism, though William Rees in Nature wishes that Diamond's selective look at modern societies had included "a detailed consideration of the United States, Diamond's own country and the one imposing the greatest ecological load on the planet."

Perhaps this striking unanimity in the two most prestigious science journals is a tribute to the compelling force of Diamond's argument. Or maybe it is a sign of the craven groupthink of politicized science that Michael Crichton deplores in his new novel, State of Fear (HarperCollins), which should be read alongside Diamond's Collapse.

Crichton's book is a wickedly funny satire in which rogue environmentalists commit murder and mayhem in an effort to dramatize their cause (and get more funding). Running throughout is a contemptuous dismissal of global warming, with many citations (this is a novel with footnotes), but Crichton has other fish to fry as well. He wants to provoke readers to ask themselves how they know what they think they know. If—as happens to be the case—I believe that global warming is probably a reality, do I have good reasons, or have I simply accepted one of the latest received ideas of the intelligentsia? As his title suggests, Crichton is also making an argument about fear as an instrument of social control and political leverage. (Keep an eye out for a piece on this theme by Scott Bader-Saye, which will appear in Books & Culture later this year.)

Of course you'll need to keep that salt shaker handy while reading Crichton, too. For all their differences, he and Diamond worship at the same shrine, at the altar of scientism.

* * *

A book just out from the University Press of Mississippi caught my eye: Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium, edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. You may have seen Jeet Heer's essay on Walter Ong last summer ["From Homer to Hip-Hop," July/August 2004], and the great Jesuit scholar is one of many interesting figures represented in this volume. If, like me, you care about comics, you'll want to pick up a copy.

Ah, the comics. Blackhawk, for instance, and his multitalented, multiethnic crew, and the ongoing adventures of Donald Duck and Huey, Dewey, and Louie and Uncle Scrooge, but also Moby Dick (which I first read in the Classics Illustrated version) and the Bible. Yes, we had a couple of conventionally illustrated Bible story books, and their 19th-century renderings made an impression as well, along with the words from the Bible we heard every day. But my visual sense of many biblical characters and scenes was indelibly formed by a version illustrated in comic-book style, with the text taken from Scripture.

Graphic novels? I was grown, a husband and father, when I discovered a book called The New Sun, by Taro Yashima (1908-1994), published in 1943 by Henry Holt. Yashima lived nearby (we were then in Pasadena), and Wendy and I loved his children's books—Umbrella, Momo's Kitten, Crow Boy—but this was something different: not a graphic novel (the term wasn't yet current in any case) but rather a graphic memoir about growing up in Japan during a time of rampant militarism. I loved the book not only for itself, poring over every page, but for the possibilities of the form.

Now we have a flourishing genre, the subject lately of much huffing and puffing. Charles McGrath's cover story for the July 11, 2004 issue of the New York Times Magazine is typical in overselling the graphic novel in a bid to get people to Take It Seriously, but it is also a useful introduction. While some of these books are indeed "novelistic," many—like Taro Yashima's New Sun—are autobiographical. See for example Epileptic, by the French artist who calls himself David B., just published in English translation by Pantheon. It's an account of his life that centers on his family and in particular on his epileptic brother.

A tendency toward navel-gazing is one of the besetting sins of the genre, along with a fixation on the creepy, the ugly, and the perverse, but it need not be so, as Sam Torode's graphic review of Craig Thompson's Blankets makes clear.

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