21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

artworks-000405271329-cwsofq-t500x500Nonfiction – audiobook. Read by Derek Perkins. Random House Audio, 2018. 11 hours, 41 minutes. Library copy.

Based on the title, I assumed this book would provide 21 ways of how homo sapienswill need to adapt to life in the twenty-first century, as envisioned in Harari’s Homo Deus. Instead, Harari builds from one chapter to the next to explain how the current stories we collectively tell ourselves to orient our outlook and provide social cohesion are no longer accepted by society writ large.

Capitalism has vanished communism with countries like China adapting to a market-oriented economic system even while claiming to be a communist society. Young people are becoming increasingly unreligious as religion – whether it be Judaism or Islam or Buddhism – fails to provide comfort for their technology-focused challenges. And while nationalism is on the rise, its historic manifestations – border walls, wars – are increasingly unpalatable to our global economic system.

Ergo, the biggest lesson of the 21stcentury for future scholars will be how we create social fabric without relying on past -isms. Harari quickly dismisses social media as an alternative, pointing out how Facebook has undermined democracies and allowed tribalism to spread.  (Much of his book is underpinned by the belief that ownership of digital data will become the ultimate form of wealth in the future, so he takes a rather cautious view towards social media in that regard as well.)

Instead, he comes to the conclusion that the best way to connect is through meditation. Practicing meditation allows people to focus on what is real, both in terms of their physical health and in terms of how valid their emotional perceptions of the world are.

Frankly, I found this final prescription to be out of touch with most peoples’ realities – how many people can really take time off to attend meditation retreats? – and a poor alternative to religion. Like Harari, I am not a religious person and I do scoff at the idea that an individual needs religion to be a good person.

But I’ve also experienced the community that comes with religion and how comforting that can be, provided you follow the rules of conformity. I dabbled in meditation while my mother was ill, and the practice of solitary mindfulness did help me process my emotions on some of the more difficult days. But meditation didn’t bring dinner to my house, offer to sit with my mom while I got a massage, or send weekly emails offering a connection back to the life I led in Boston.

As much as I disagree with Harari’s final chapter, the road to reaching that point was just as fascinating and engaging as his previous two books were. His writing offered me the philosophical conversation that I crave, and I especially enjoyed the way he broke down the immigration debate. That particular chapter will certainly underpin my reading of news articles and reports on the “crisis at the southern border” going forward.

Of Harari’s three mainstream books (he’s also written three academic tomes on medieval and military history), this is probably the only book that works in an audiobook format. No charts, diagrams, or photographs are included in the text; I checked a printed copy before deciding to go the audiobook route. It is more conversational in style than the previous two books, engagingly captured by Derek Perkins’ narration.

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