Graeber and Wengrow or I Like Big Books

My holiday reading consisted of wading my way (almost!) through David Graeber and David Wengrow’s massive book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). I like the book and I like their argument and I’m hoping that it spurs a wide ranging discussion of how our views of the past shape how we imagine the present and the future.

I’m not going to review this book in part because people much wiser and more engaged than I am have already started to think about its arguments. In short, Graeber and Wengrow argue against the idea that early societies developed from small, egalitarian bands of hunters and gatherers into larger, hierarchical societies organized around settled agriculture and settled in towns and cities. The demonstrated that evidence exists, often from indigenous sources and archaeology, that reveals a far wider range of social, political, and economic organization than the linear narrative of development would suggest. In fact, they argue that the linear narrative which situated egalitarian societies as precursors to more rigidly organized hierarchies derived from Enlightenment encounters with indigenous peoples who Europeans deemed inferior. As a result, European thinkers located absolutist monarchies and other forms of authoritarian governments as superior and more developed than the more egalitarian forms they encountered in the Americas. And, making a long story rather shorter (and more on this later), Graeber and Wengrow argued that this initial conceit effectively suppressed evidence for the wide variation in forms of political organization in the past. More egalitarian forms of social organization often appeared side-by-side with more autocratic forms either seasonally within the same society or amid different groups who occupied the same region.  

It is clear that a book of this size and scope, written by authors of such significant standing, will generate debate. In fact, my social media feed is already simmering with comments from people engaging with this book at present. One of the more intriguing questions centers on the intended audience for a book like this. I suspect that readers like me are the intended audience. While I have some experience as a field archaeologist, I’m hardly a specialist in the periods and regions that Graeber and Wengrow discuss. As a result, I understand how archaeology works as a discipline both on the ground and in terms of the discourse, and this understanding reinforces the plausibility of their arguments and emphasizes the subversive character of their approach.

More than that, the book is long. While the writing style is accessible, it requires both time and patience to wade through their arguments and explore their citations. This is not a casual book or one that lends itself to recreational reading necessarily. In fact, I’d argue that its length is both a strength and weakness. 

As a weakness, it is clear that the book was not necessarily well edited. I don’t mean that it wasn’t edited well at the level of copy editing. It feels as polished in this department as one might expect from a trade book. Instead, I mean that the book proceeded casually and without any clear impulse for efficiency in argument. It was not quite discursive, although at times you could almost feel the authors pulling back from a thread that they would have liked to pursue, perhaps to the detriment of their larger argument. But it wasn’t an efficient book and in that way resembles the inefficiency of books like Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome (2019)

In this reflects a choice by the authors and publishers. Part of this is likely a choice on the part of the authors to publish the book when it was done rather than when it was finished (and as someone going through revisions right now, I understand that). It was also probably the product of David Graeber’s untimely death and the desire to preserve a sense of the moment in the book (which emerged from conversations between the authors over the course of decades). There is no doubt that a lightly edited book is more economical to produce than one that requires a series of significant interventions. This is true both for authors and publishers.

On the other hand, it might be that long books also have other values as well. They do impart a kind of seriousness to an argument through their scale alone. A book the purports to write a new history of humanity should be big as humans have been around for quite a while and existing histories of humanities would fill an entire library. For a non-specialist reader (like myself) the size of the book reinforces the scale and scope of the authors’ argument and for a casual reader it serves to communicate the utmost seriousness and weightiness of this topic.

Big books, however discursive and loosely bound they may be, remain an appropriate outlet for weighty ideas produced by major and serious scholars. Thus, they not only offer a model of efficient scholarly production, but they also present an icon of serious, substantial, and important scholarship (which unsurprisingly come from two major, male, senior scholars).  

One Comment

  1. I appreciate your examination of this book from a publisher’s perspective. Your analysis of the work’s strength/weakness as apparent through its length is interesting, as are your suppositions about why the length was not cut and fine-tuned. Death of the author, the book being “done” but not “finished,” the “sense of the moment” (love that!) are all real considerations that a publisher would have to engage in. I am a fan of big books, but an even bigger fan of big books that tease out an argument AND finish all the threads. When done ably, such a work is exquisite. Our reading lists seldom cross, Bill, and so for that reason, I’ll probably not read The Dawn of Everything, but as I sipped my morning coffee and read your article, I took delight in knowing something of this book through your analysis of its production.
    –Suzzanne Kelley, Publisher

    Reply

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