Kanji vs. Steel (Cookie reviews a book)

So I said I wasn’t in the business of doing reviews of things, but since I mentioned on the show (ep. 49) that I was reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, and because Sagramore had such a strong reaction to it, and because I finally finished it recently (got distracted along the way by fast-paced novels and stuff), I now feel like sharing my opinion.

The book has been out for a while, and is an approach to dismantling a sort of racist theory of history in which Europeans conquered the world because they were just more suited to. The presentation and rebuttal of this historical view seemed almost outdated to me, but I think that may just be because my high school teachers (I’m thinking specifically of 10th grade AP world history, with Co-daddy) painstakingly pressed home the point that European history is not the only history, and also that a geographical rather than racial look at what developed with who, where, and by when is only logical. I think this might have been a bit more cutting edge when I was in high school; my brother in the class one year after me read Guns, Germs, and Steel as required summer reading before taking AP world history.

But to me it sort of felt like when my (black, male) roommate and I joined the book group at the public library in Kansas. It was mostly old people, and us, and when we read Fences, one of the members (a professor, referring to his college students) said that young people these days don’t really understand why race is important. My roommate and I glanced at each other and then at the group. No, we don’t. Is it, and will you tell us why?

I’m therefore not really in any position to discuss why race is or isn’t important. I think the thing about ‘importance’ is that a lot of things are important if you think they are, and aren’t if you think they aren’t. The view of history is now taught (at least in suburban Georgia, since 2002) in such a way as to make the arguments of GGS seem a bit redundant.

Aside from that, the information in the book was really interesting. I picked it up because I had read an article (this one) about Japan’s ancient past and was pretty enthralled with how it was summarized in this article by the same author. I feel like I learned something, which for me is a pretty good day.

The problem I have is predictable: that the scope of the work (GGS) is very broad, and that Diamond passes judgment on topics in which he has no expertise. Only one stands out in particular in my memory, as a student of language. He says that Japan holds on to its ridiculously difficult and clunky system of kanji writing based on its prestige, despite the fact that they have a functioning syllabary (in hiragana and katakana). But Diamond has never attempted to read, as I have, a kids’ book in Japan written only in hiragana.

Shit is hard. I can make out all the sounds, of course, because hiragana is like that. Know the symbol, know the sound (unlike the miseries of English phonics), but it is damn near impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins. Kanji, on the other hand, may be ridiculously clunky, hard to learn, and a royal pain in my Japanese-language-studying ass, but each symbol has a meaning that it brings to the word or sentence (no matter how it’s pronounced, and yeah that does change), and that is what makes them useful. In speaking, yeah, you have to go by sounds alone, but when reading (and in English, even, the words you see in reading are often much more complex and diverse than those that come out of people’s mouths in everyday conversation, right?).. Also in speaking, the natural pauses and flow of things help you know where a word ends and what word is being used, whereas if it were just the sounds in a row in writing, I think it would be more difficult. Maybe it’s just that I need a lot more reading practice (true), but for me the perfectly readable Japanese text is one full of kanji where the kanji has yomigana, or the pronunciation, written over each one so if I don’t know it, I can look that shit up easily.

All of this to say, not only did Diamond oversimplify on that point, he was downright wrong. And he just gave me a lot of info on other things I have no background in, so I have no basis for agreement or disagreement, but my trust has been shaken, and I must now take what I read with a grain of salt.

Salty or no, it’s still a pretty interesting read, if you’re into history and human civilization’s roots.


Happy New Year (of the Water Dragon),


2 thoughts on “Kanji vs. Steel (Cookie reviews a book)”

  1. Since the golden era of our shared domicile, I have actually started realizing (and am still realizing) the significance of race in history. However, I think I need to graduate first before I explore it in greater detail.

    Great writing Cookie.

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