Historia Nostra Bookclub: Why I Don’t Like Guns, Germs, and Steel

By Erin Isaac

2021 has been a long year. It’s only June, but I’m calling it—2021 has been a year to endure or make the most of rather than one rife with opportunities. At least, that’s been my experience. My YouTube project, Historia Nostra, has pushed through it and, I hope, given viewers a chance to “visit” places they couldn’t physically go during the pandemic. While I’ve got more of those videos in the works, this month we’re taking a step back from travel videos to try something new.

The Historia Nostra Bookclub is my way to take advantage of the daunting amount of reading history that PhD students are required to do during their first years of study. While we’ve been locked down I’ve had the pleasure and pressure of reading for my comprehensive fields exams—many of which I want to talk about here. I’ll share my thoughts about some of the books I’m reading and hope that viewers will be challenged to read along with me or contribute their own reflections in the comment section.

First up to bat is an old foe of mine, Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Over the years, this is a book my non-academic historian friends and family have often referenced in discussions about history or recommended to me for a “fun” read. As a younger scholar I wrote it off as a “popular history” that was, in my biased and frankly conceited opinion, not worth my time. I naively assumed the book could not compare with the “real” history I was reading by “real” historians—whatever that means. My view of such matters has evolved as I’ve become more skeptical of the academy’s elitism.

I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel for the first time in September of 2020. I probably won’t read it again if it can be helped. But I was surprised by how much of the book I found intriguing. Despite myself, I found it difficult to construct counter-arguments while reading his persuasively argued and accessibly written book. His search for knowledge and understanding is not, as I had wrongly assumed, driven by a outspoken belief in European exceptionalism. His intentions, as described in his preface, seem to be good. But something still felt off, or wrong about the book.

I’ve grappled with my own feelings about Diamond’s work and my response to Guns, Germs, and Steel in the months since. I’ve boiled my criticisms down to 5 things I consider flaws of the 20 some odd year old book, outlined in this month’s Historia Nostra video. If you, like me, have spoken confidently about Diamond’s work without having actually read it—this video is for you. It’s also for you if you LOVE Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Historia Nostra is on Facebook (@historianostrayoutube), Twitter (@historia_nostra) and Instagram (@historianostrayoutube). Follow us there to get updates on what we’re working on and to get notified when new videos go live. Erin Isaac (PhD student, Western University) is Historia Nostra’s creator, writer, and producer. Suggestions, collaboration pitches, or feedback should be directed to historianostra@outlook.com or erin@historianostra.ca

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