It was Silicon Valley that turned Yuval Noah Harari into a celebrity historianHistorians in the News
tags: Silicon Valley, Yuval Noah Harari
Less than a decade ago, Yuval Noah Harari was a junior professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, stuck teaching a world history survey course because none of the senior faculty would deign to take it on. Today, he’s listened to and praised by the likes of Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, who reviewed Harari’s latest book on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Harari speaks at the World Economic Forum at Davos, TED, and TimesTalks. At the time of this writing, his books occupied the top two slots on the New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list.
Not bad for a vegan medievalist who meditates two hours a day and lives with his husband on a farming cooperative outside Jerusalem. And it’s all due to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a book based on that survey course that no one else wanted to teach—a book that has leapt far beyond the original audience for which Harari intended it and has been embraced by the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley and Hollywood. On the West Coast, half a world away, this young Israeli academic has been informally elected the man best equipped to tell those industries what matters to them most: what will happen next. He can explain why the sleek, friction-free technological utopia they once promised has slid back in primal conflict and turmoil. And he assures them that they—the engineers, the scientists, and the storytellers—still hold the power to radically transform the world.
Published in Israel in 2011, Sapiens quickly became a best-seller there. The English-language version (translated by Harari himself) didn’t appear in the U.K. until 2014, and by the time that edition was selling like hotcakes, the book had already been turned down by 25 U.S. publishers. Why? “No one had heard of him before,” said Claire Wachtel, who finally acquired the U.S. rights for HarperCollins and published the book in February 2015. Wachtel, who also edited 2005’s Freakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, explained that Sapiens wasn’t an instant hit stateside, but when Mark Zuckerberg, who had just launched a very public yearlong reading project, selected it a few months later, interest in the title began to snowball. A glowing endorsement from Gates the following spring cemented Sapiens’ status as a slow-build blockbuster; by June 2017 the English version had sold 1 million copies. Harari has published two more books since then, 2017’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and mostly recently, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Each release bumps Sapiens back onto the best-seller lists, making it the prime example of what the Guardian has called “the ‘brainy’ book as publishing phenomenon.” Ridley Scott and documentarian Asif Kapadia are reported to be adapting it for the screen.
Despite publishers’ initial skepticism toward Sapiens, its success can’t be called a fluke. Readers have long exhibited an appetite for sweeping surveys of world history, from H.G. Wells’ 1919 Outline of History to The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant—11 volumes published between 1935 and 1975, most of them Book of the Month Club selections. The ’60s and ’70s saw very popular companion books to documentary series on public television; Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (which focused on art) and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (which focused on science and technology) are the best-known examples. In whatever form it takes, the global survey—usually delivered by a well-known, graying eminence whose scholarly credibility never impinges on his storytelling panache—promises its audience that they can whip their flabby sense of the past into shape. In post–World War II America in particular, the GI Bill and a strong autodidactic impulse made books that promised mastery of “world” history (the focus was almost entirely on Europe) catnip to the general reader.
Sapiens appeals to this old-fashioned appetite even as it revamps the genre to address the dreams and fears of a 21st-century audience. The readers of The Story of Civilization and the viewers of Kenneth Clark’s series looked back over the span of centuries with reverent complacency; they were absorbing humanity’s greatest and most inspiring achievements in an orderly narrative of progress, from the perspective of that progress’s highest point yet. (This was exactly how my own family saw it when we tuned into our local PBS station for our weekly serving of elevating yet digestible high culture.) Sapiens, by contrast, presents history as a series of wrenching revolutions, each contributing to our species’ dominance over the planet but at a terrible cost. Not all “ascent” is for the better. Things could go terribly wrong in the future, Harari warns, unless we make a better effort to understand the past. If the TED talk is the PBS series of our time, Harari—young, slender, pale, and with a receding hairline that gives him an almost comically eggheaded appearance—makes an unsettlingly nervy, cerebral successor to Clark’s suave Oxbridge accent and Bronowski’s grandfatherly bristling silver eyebrows. He has come not to congratulate us for our achievements, but to deliver some inconvenient truths. ...
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