Day 9: A Book that Made Me Sick

Unlike the majority of the previous challenges, today’s selection was incredibly easy to come by: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.┬áPinker’s central thesis is that we are now living in an essentially peaceful time, where the chances of meeting a violent death are far lower than in past eras, and moreover, our era is less cruel and less violent (person to person as well as state-sponsored violence) than any other era in human history. He argues this thesis over the course of nearly 800 pages, with the assistance of an overabundance of graphs (mainly containing a single line declining from top right to lower left), and incredibly graphic descriptions of how violent we used to be (more on that later).

First, let me start by saying that I did not like this book. At all. I thought the argumentation was incredibly weak, the thesis dodgy, and that his attempt at history, albeit incredibly descriptive, lacked any real analysis. I know that I’m not in the majority here, and that most reviews were favorable and found his book convincing, but I have to politely disagree. Simply exhausting me with volume (be it of words, graphs, or graphic examples of violence) is not enough to convince me of any argument, not even one, such as this one, that I was predisposed to accept.

But that’s not what today’s challenge is about, and although I did feel “sick” having to read 800 pages of never-ending graphs and poor logic, the reason that I selected this book for today’s challenge is because of it’s incredibly graphic (maybe even gratuitously so) descriptions of the violence that we have, in times past, perpetrated against each other. I don’t like gratuitous violence, not in film nor in print, and although some descriptions presented in this book did effectively serve to further his argument, at times it felt as if he was trying to “gross us out” with these descriptions so that we could, in turn, pat ourselves on the back for having moved so far beyond it.┬áSome of it is even too graphic to post here, but I will provide a couple of examples.

Breached with surprising ease by the cold bronze, the body’s contents pour forth in viscous torrents: portions of brains emerge at the ends of quivering spears, young men hold back their viscera with desperate hands, eyes are knocked or cut from skulls and glimmer sightlessly in the dust. Sharp points forge new entrances and exits in young bodies: in the center of foreheads, in temples, between eyes, at the base of the neck, clean through the mouth or cheek and out the other side, through flanks, crotches, buttocks, hands, navels, backs, stomachs, nipples, chests, noses, ears, and chins. . . . Spears, pikes arrows, swords, daggers, and rocks lust for the savor of flesh and blood. Blood sprays forth and mists the air. Bone fragments fly. Marrow boils from fresh stumps.

Right. Or this,

As the levers bent forward, the main force of my knees against the two planks burst asunder the sinews of my hams, and the lids of me knees were crushed. My eyes began to startle, my mouth to foam and froth, and my teeth to chatter like the doubling of a drummer’s stick. My lips were shivering, my groans were vehement, and blood sprang from my arms, broken sinews, and knees. Being loosed from these pinnacles of pain, I was hand-fast set on the floor, with this incessant implication: “Confess! Confess!”

I read this book relatively recently, and I started reading at the dance studio waiting for my daughter to get out of her ballet class. That turned out to be a poor decision. I had to stop once to step outside for some fresh air, a second time to get a drink of water, and I eventually had to stop reading the book altogether as the other moms were casting strange looks my way as a direct result of the look of sheer horror on my face. Like I said, I don’t do well with such vivid descriptions of violence, and graphic nature of the examples selected by Pinker, compounded by the sheer number of them, quite literally made me sick.