Must Read Book

Diamond, Jarred, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1999).

I confess that I was very impressed with Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1999). This is certainly not a contrarian call--after all, the book was a bestseller, and it won a Pulitzer Prize. But Diamond's is about as materialist an interpretation of history (more precisely, prehistory) as is possible. The rise of human cultures, he argues, only happened in a context of material surplus. Food production necessitated more sedentary living and allowed humans to acquire possessions. Where sources of food became stable--through domestication of animals or the cultivation of plants--human culture, including writing, numeracy, government, and so forth flourished. Those locales which lacked the flora or fauna to leap beyond simple hunting and gathering could not develop the surplus that allowed advanced social and cultural development. I do a very different type of history than Diamond. I am an Americanist, and I specialize in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More, I am as much a social and cultural historian as anything else. Yet it is precisely Diamond's stark materialism--which should be raising so many red flags for me--that I find most fascinating. Marxist historians who insist too sedulously on the importance of material conditions in the unfolding of history are sometimes seen as a bit simple-minded. But has cultural history not taken us too far the other way? Guns, Germs, and Steel is a powerful reminder that goods, who owns them, and who created them, matter profoundly in human history.

Recommended by Elliot Gorn, Purdue University

Elliott Gorn teaches history at Purdue University. He is author of The Manly Art; Mother Jones, The Most Dangerous Woman in America; and co-author (with Warren Goldstein) of A Brief History of American Sports.