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Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond

Published in May of 2019.

The reason that I read Upheaval is because Diamond’s 1997 Guns, Germs, and Steel is one of my favorite all time books. 

Jared Diamond is my nonfiction equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers franchise in movies.  A must read on opening night kind of thing.

Does Upheaval live up to the hype?  (If hype is the right way to talk about a 512-page work of nonfiction).

I fully expect that academics from every corner will pick Upheaval apart. Scholarship today is almost always about building knowledge on the narrow.  Intellectual generalists and academics who write for a non-specialist audience are not taken very seriously in academia.

Diamond, now in his early eighties, has little interest in making restrained arguments.  Five decades of wide-ranging academic scholarship have given Diamond the confidence to say big things.

The result in Upheaval is a world-spanning tour of history, politics, economics, ecology, demography, sociology, and most anything else you can name. 

Upheaval is built around deep-dives into Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia, and the United States. 

Diamond’s big idea - and it is a fascinating one - is to ask if national crises can be understood through the same framework as personal crises?  The methodology provides Diamond with a structure in which to talk about the history and culture of these seven diverse countries, while holding a number of factors constant.

Where the book will get the most criticism is in the area that Diamond is also self-critical of the research - that is the failure to empirically operationalize the concepts of institutional crises.  Diamond uses a technique of narrative exploration, rather than hypothesis testing through quantitative analysis.  How one judges the strength of Upheaval will, therefore, depend on the degree to which Diamond’s conclusions align with the reader’s beliefs and worldviews. 

I found Upheaval hugely enlightening.  Having recently traveled to Japan, the chapters on Japanese history and society both rang true to my experience - and helped me make sense of what I had witnessed. 

Upheaval makes you want to visit all the countries that Diamond covers.  I had known little about Chile or Indonesia, and less about Finland.  Now I know at least enough about these countries to be dangerous.

Diamond, for me, is a wonderful example of how to live a big academic life.  He has friends in all the countries that he profiled, and speaks the language of most of them.  Diamond, while getting a Ph.D. in physiology, has adopted disciplines as diverse as anthropology and geography and evolutionary biology as his own. 

To be teaching and writing big books at 82 years of age is a goal we can all aspire to reach.

What are you reading?

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