Many countries have faced crises throughout their existence, everything from political turmoil to all-out war. Some of these have similarities, but ultimately see very different outcomes, while others initially appear completely different yet turn out to have significant overlaps. By focusing on a select few – Japan, Finland, Indonesia, Australia, Germany, Chile, and the US – Jared Diamond here delves briefly into selective episodes of national histories he believes provide valuable lessons beyond the countries in question. These historical and contemporary stories, which readers may be loosely familiar with – such as the Finland-Russia ‘Winter War’, Japan’s declining population, or democratic deficits in the US – are certainly engaging, and told in detail with a distinctive geographical voice.
Beyond that, this book appears unsure about its purpose. As Diamond admits, the choices of countries are nothing more than those he personally knows best, while the lessons from each are highly opaque, despite his best efforts to draw rounded conclusions. There are also real questions to be asked of the tenuous links between them: the boxes he tries to squeeze each story into – interesting though they all are – feel forced, as if they don’t really fit.
Additionally, there’s an attempt to draw parallels between national crises and personal crises, a theory he struggles to really flesh out. It’s not necessarily fruitless, but it requires a few leaps of faith to make it work, leaps he doesn’t really help us across. It isn’t helped by the weak example of his own personal ‘crisis’ – nothing more than having doubts about career choices, a near universal experience – that feels like an inappropriate use of the word (perhaps it’s just semantics, but such a dramatic term should probably be saved for life-changing events, not lingering doubt).
Finally, I’m sure he’s very well connected, but there’s still perhaps a little bit too much reliance on stories seemingly recounted entirely by Diamond’s friends (even if they do happen to be ‘retired senators’), casting doubts over the reliability of their accounts. There’s plenty to enjoy in Upheaval, but, beyond a few interesting stories, ultimately we’re left wondering what the point of all that was.
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