Jared Diamond’s latest book, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (2019), is clearly written for a lay audience.
I took only introductory courses in Australian and Japanese history in university, but I learned almost nothing new from Diamond’s respective chapters on those countries. The chapters on postwar Germany and the 1973 coup in Chile taught me nothing I hadn’t picked in high school or from watching documentaries. The remaining chapters on Finland’s Winter War with the Soviet Union and Indonesia’s dictatorship were more informative, but only because I never investigated either.
Even by the standard of an undergraduate textbook, Upheaval falls short. Footnotes, endnotes and references are completely lacking. Anecdotes abound. If it wasn’t for a list of further reading at the back — which contains barely more than a dozen titles per country — one could be forgiven for thinking Diamond relied entirely on personal experience and the opinions of a handful of international acquaintances to arrive at his conclusions.
Upheaval does contain insights, as one would expect from the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), which made a significant contribution to the study of the “West and the Rest” (why did the West diverge from the rest of the world circa 1800?) I specialized in as a history student.
Diamond argues nations cope with crises much the same way as individuals. Like people, the extent to which nations persevere is measured by how much responsibility they accept for their problems, are willing to ask for and receive help, and are willing to change.
Hardly groundbreaking stuff. Japan’s emergence as a great power in the late nineteenth century owed to its willingness to adapt without sacrificing its own culture. Germany’s post-World War II reintegration into Europe probably wouldn’t have happened if the country hadn’t atoned for the crimes of the Nazi era.
None of this is wrong, but it hardly warrants the over-the-top praise on the dust cover that convinced me to buy the book: “eye-opening,” according to Diane Ackerman; “brilliant” and “gripping,” according to Paul Ehrlich; “rich, original and fascinating,” according to Steven Pinker; “riveting and illuminating,” according to Yuval Noah Harari; worthy of a Nobel Prize in Literature, according to Michael Shermer (really).
At least now I know not buy any of their books.